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After the brilliance of Capitalist Realism, Ghosts Of My Life confirms Mark 
Fisher’s role as our greatest and most trusted navigator of these times 
out of joint, through all their frissons and ruptures, among all their 
apparitions and spectres, past, present and future. 

David Peace, author of the Red Riding Quartet and Red or Dead 

Mark Fisher reads the contemporary world like no other analyst of its 
miseries and madness and mores. He is driven by anger but, 
miraculously, he never forgets to celebrate, when that reaction is 
apposite. I find his work exhilarating, fascinating, deeply engaging and, 
not least, utterly vital; this world we have made for ourselves would be a 
lesser place without it. 

Niall Griffiths, author of Sheepshagger 

Ghosts Of My Life confirms that Mark Fisher is our most penetrating 
explorer of the connections between pop culture, politics, and personal 
life under the affective regime of digital capitalism. The most admirable 
qualities of Fisher’s work are its lucidity, reflecting the urgency of his 
commitment to communicating ideas; his high expectations of popular 
art’s power to challenge, enlighten, and heal; and his adamant refusal to 
settle for less. 

Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania and Rip It Up and Start Again 

A must read for modernists, and for anyone who misses the future. This 
is the first book to really make sense of the fog of ideas that have been 
tagged as “hauntology”. Ghosts Of My Life is enjoyable, progressive and 

Bob Stanley, author of Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modem Pop and 
member of Saint Etienne 

Praise for Capitalist Realism 

‘Let’s not beat around the bush: Fisher’s compulsively readable book is 
simply the best diagnosis of our predicament that we have! Through 
examples from daily life and popular culture, but without sacrificing 
theoretical stringency, he provides a ruthless portrait of our ideological 
misery. Although the book is written from a radically Left perspective, 
Fisher offers no easy solutions. Capitalist Realism is a sobering call for 
patient theoretical and political work. It enables us to breathe freely in 
our sticky atmosphere.’ 

Slavoj Zizek 

‘What happened to our future? Mark Fisher is a master cultural 
diagnostician, and in Capitalist Realism he surveys the symptoms of our 
current cultural malaise. We live in a world in which we have been told, 
again and again, that There Is No Alternative. The harsh demands of the 
‘just-in-time’ marketplace have drained us of all hope and all belief. 
Living in an endless Eternal Now, we no longer seem able to imagine a 
future that might be different from the present. This book offers a 
brilliant analysis of the pervasive cynicism in which we seem to be 
mired, and even holds out the prospect of an antidote.’ 

Steven Shaviro 

‘Finally, an analysis of contemporary capitalism that combines rigorous 
cultural analysis with unflinching political critique. Illustrating the 
deleterious effects of “business ontology” on education and “market 
Stalinism” in public life, Fisher lays bare the new cultural logic of 
capital. A provocative and necessary read, especially for anyone wanting 
to talk seriously about the politics of education today.’ 

Sarah Amsler 

Ghosts Of 
My Life 

Writings on Depression, Hauntology 
and Lost Futures 

Mark Fisher 

Winchester, UK 
Washington, USA 

First published by Zero Books, 2014 

Zero Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station Approach, 

Alresford, Hants, S024 9JH, UK 

For distributor details and how to order please visit the ‘Ordering’ section on our website. 

Text copyright: Mark Fisher 2013 
ISBN: 978 1 78099 226 6 

Ah rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book 
may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publishers. 

The rights of Mark Fisher as author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, 

Designs and Patents Act 1988. 

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. 

Design: Stuart Davies 
Cover photograph by Chris Heppell 
Illustrations by Laura Oldfield Ford 

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CRO 4YY 

We operate a distinctive and ethical publishing philosophy in all areas 
of our business, from our global network of authors to production and 

worldwide distribution. 


00: Lost Futures 

‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’ 

Ghosts Of My Life 

01: The Return of the 70s 

No Longer the Pleasures: Joy Division 
Smiley’s Game: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 

The Past is an Alien Planet: The First and Last Episodes of Life on Mars 
‘Can the World be as Sad as it Seems?’: David Peace and his Adapters 
Now Then, Now Then: Jimmy Savile and ‘the 70s on Trial’ 

02: Hauntology 

London After the Rave: Burial 
Downcast Angel: Interview with Burial 

Sleevenotes for The Caretaker’s Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia 
Memory Disorder: Interview with The Caretaker 
Home is where the Haunt Is: The Shining’s Hauntology 
Hauntological Blues: Little Axe 

Nostalgia for Modernism: The Focus Group and Belbury Poly 
The Ache of Nostalgia: The Advisory Circle 

Someone Else’s Memories: Asher, Philip Jeck, Black To Comm, G.E.S., 
Position Normal, Mordant Music 

‘Old Sunlight From Other Times and Other Lives’: John Foxx’s Tiny 
Colour Movies 

Electricity and Ghosts: Interview with John Foxx 

Another Grey World: Darkstar, James Blake, Kanye West, Drake and 
‘Party Hauntology’ 

03: The Stain of Place 

‘Always Yearning For The Time That Just Eluded Us’ - Introduction to 
Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah 
Nomadalgia: The Junior Boys’ So This is Goodbye 
Grey Area: Chris Petit’s Content 
Postmodern Antiques: Patience (After Sebald) 

The Lost Unconscious: Christopher Nolan’s Inception 
Handsworth Songs and the English Riots 

‘Tremors of an Imperceptible Future’: Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins 

For my wife, Zoe and my son, George 

Mark Fisher is the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 
(ZerO, 2009). His writing has appeared in many publications, including 
Sight & Sound, The Wire, The Guardian, Film Quarterly and frieze. He is 
Programme Leader of the MA in Aural and Visual Cultures at 
Goldsmiths, University of London, and a lecturer at the University of 
East London. He lives in Suffolk. 


Many of the ideas in Ghosts Of My Life were first auditioned on my blog, 
k-punk. I’m grateful to the k-punk readers who responded to the ideas 
there and helped them to propagate. I’m also grateful to the publishers 
who kindly allowed me to reprint material in Ghosts, in particular Rob 
Winter at Sight & Sound and Tony Herrington at The Wire. Some of the 
pieces that originally appeared elsewhere have been altered for inclusion 
here. Needless to say, all responsibility for the edits in Ghosts lies with 

If I were to list everyone who inspired or supported the writing of 
Ghosts Of My Life, the book would never get started, so I will concentrate 
only on those who worked closely on the manuscript. Thanks, therefore, 
to Tariq Goddard for his patience, Liam Sprod and Alex Niven for their 
attentive copy-editing and proofreading, Laura Oldfield Ford for 
allowing me to use her drawings to illustrate the text, Chris Heppell for 
the cover photograph, and Rob White for his customarily insightful and 
incisive comments. 

Lately I’ve been feeling like Guy Pearce in 




‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’ 

‘ There’s no time here, not any more’ 

The final image of the British television series Sapphire and Steel 
seemed designed to haunt the adolescent mind. The two lead characters, 
played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, find themselves in what 
seems to be a 1940s roadside cafe. The radio is playing a simulation of 
Glenn Miller-style smooth Big Band jazz. Another couple, a man and a 
woman dressed in 1940s clothes, are sitting at an adjacent table. The 
woman rises, saying: ‘This is the trap. This is nowhere, and it’s forever.’ 
She and her companion then disappear, leaving spectral outlines, then 
nothingness. Sapphire and Steel panic. They rifle through the few objects 
in the cafe, looking for something they can use to escape. There is 
nothing, and when they pull back the curtains, there is only a black 
starry void beyond the window. The cafe, it seems, is some kind of 
capsule floating in deep space. 

Watching this extraordinary final sequence now, the juxtaposition of 
the cafe with the cosmos is likely to put in mind some combination of 
Edward Hopper and Rene Magritte. Neither of those references were 
available to me at the time; in fact, when I later encountered Hopper and 
Magritte, I no doubt thought of Sapphire and Steel. It was August 1982 
and I had just turned 15 years old. It would be more than 20 years later 
before I would see these images again. By then, thanks to VHS, DVD and 
YouTube, it seemed that practically everything was available for re¬ 
watching. In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost. 

The passage of 30 years has only made the series appear even stranger 
than it did at the time. This was science fiction with none of the 
traditional trappings of the genre, no spaceships, no ray guns, no 
anthropomorphic foes: only the unraveling fabric of the corridor of time, 
along which malevolent entities would crawl, exploiting and expanding 
gaps and fissures in temporal continuity. All we knew about Sapphire 
and Steel was that they were ‘detectives’ of a peculiar kind, probably not 
human, sent from a mysterious ‘agency’ to repair these breaks in time. 

‘The basis of Sapphire and Steel,’ the series’s creator P. J. Hammond 
explained, ‘came from my desire to write a detective story, into which I 
wanted to incorporate Time. I’ve always been interested in Time, 
particularly the ideas of J. B. Priestley and H. G. Wells, but I wanted to 
take a different approach to the subject. So instead of having them go 
backwards and forwards in Time, it was about Time breaking in, and 
having set the precedent I realised the potential that it offered with two 
people whose job it was to stop the break-ins.’ (Steve O’Brien, ‘The Story 
Behind Sapphire & Steel’, The Fan Can, 

Hammond had previously worked as a writer on police dramas such as 
The Gentle Touch and Hunter’s Walk and on children’s fantasy shows like 
Ace of Wands and Dramarama. With Sapphire and Steel, he attained a kind 
of auteurship that he would never manage to repeat. The conditions for 
this kind of visionary public broadcasting would disappear during the 
1980s, as the British media became taken over by what another 
television auteur, Dennis Potter, would call the ‘occupying powers’ of 
neoliberalism. The result of that occupation is that it is now hard to 
believe that such a programme could ever have been transmitted on 
prime-time television, still less on what was then Britain’s sole 
commercial network, ITV. There were only three television channels in 
Britain then: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV; Channel 4 would make its first 
broadcast only a few months later. 

By comparison with the expectations created by Star Wars, Sapphire 
and Steel came off as very cheap and cheerful. Even in 1982, the chroma¬ 
key special effects looked unconvincing. The fact that the stage sets were 
minimal, and the cast small (most of the ‘assignments’ only featured 
Lumley and McCallum and a couple of others), gave the impression of a 
theatre production. Yet there was none of the homeliness of kitchen sink 
naturalism; Sapphire and Steel had more in common with the enigmatic 
oppressiveness of Harold Pinter, whose plays were frequently broadcast 
on BBC television during the 1970s. 

A number of things about the series are particularly striking from the 
perspective of the 21st century. The first is its absolute refusal to ‘meet 
the audience halfway’ in the way that we’ve come to expect. This is 
partly a conceptual matter: Sapphire and Steel was cryptic, its stories and 
its world never fully disclosed, still less explained. The series was much 

closer to something like the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s Smiley 
novels - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had been broadcast in 1979; its sequel 
Smiley’s People would begin transmission a month after Sapphire and Steel 
ended - than it was to Star Wars. It was also a question of emotional 
tenor: the series and its two lead characters are lacking in the warmth 
and wisecracking humour that is now so much a taken-for-granted 
feature of entertainment media. McCallum’s Steel had a technician’s 
indifference towards the lives in which he became reluctantly enmeshed; 
although he never loses his sense of duty, he is testy and impatient, 
frequently exasperated by the way humans ‘clutter their lives’. If 
Lumley’s Sapphire appeared more sympathetic, there was always the 
suspicion that her apparent affection towards humans was something 
like an owner’s benign fascination for her pets. The emotional austerity 
that had characterised the series from the start assumes a more explicitly 
pessimistic quality in this final assignment. The Le Carre parallels are 
reinforced by the strong suspicion that, just as in Tinker Tailor Soldier 
Spy, the lead characters have been betrayed by their own side. 

Then there was Cyril Ornadel’s incidental music. As Nick Edwards 
explained in a 2009 blog post, this was ‘[ajrranged for a small ensemble 
of musicians (predominantly woodwind) with liberal use of electronic 
treatments (ring modulation, echo/delay) to intensify the drama and 
suggestion of horror, Ornadel’s cues are far more powerfully chilling and 
evocative than anything you’re likely hear in the mainstream media 
today.’ (‘Sapphire and Steel’, 

One aim of Sapphire and Steel was to transpose ghost stories out of the 
Victorian context and into contemporary places, the still inhabited or the 
recently abandoned. In the final assignment, Sapphire and Steel arrive at 
a small service station. Corporate logos - Access, 7 Up, Castrol GTX, LV - 
are pasted on the windows and the walls of the garage and the adjoining 
cafe. This ‘halfway place’ is a prototype version of what the 
anthropologist Marc Auge will call in a 1995 book of the same title, 
‘non-places’ - the generic zones of transit (retail parks, airports) which 
will come to increasingly dominate the spaces of late capitalism. In 
truth, the modest service station in Sapphire and Steel is quaintly 
idiosyncratic compared to the cloned generic monoliths which will 
proliferate besides motorways over the coming 30 years. 

The problem that Sapphire and Steel have come to solve is, as ever, to 
do with time. At the service station, there is temporal bleed-through 
from earlier periods: images and figures from 1925 and 1948 keep 
appearing, so that, as Sapphire and Steel’s colleague Silver puts it ‘time 
just got mixed, jumbled up, together, making no sort of sense’. 
Anachronism, the slippage of discrete time periods into one another, was 
throughout the series the major symptom of time breaking down. In one 
of the earlier assignments, Steel complains that these temporal 
anomalies are triggered by human beings’ predilection for the mixing of 
artefacts from different eras. In this final assignment, the anachronism 
has led to stasis: time has stopped. The service station is in ‘a pocket, a 
vacuum’. There’s ‘still traffic, but it’s not going anywhere’: the sound of 
cars is locked into a looped drone. Silver says, ‘there is no time here, not 
any more’. It’s as if the whole scenario is a literalisation of the lines in 
Pinter’s No Man’s Land: ‘No man’s land, which never moves, which never 
changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.’ 
Hammond said that he had not necessarily intended the series to end 
there. He had thought that it would be rested, to return at some point in 
the future. There would be no return - at least, not on network 
television. In 2004, Sapphire and Steel would come back for a series of 
audio adventures; though Hammond, McCallum and Lumley were not 
involved, and by then the audience was not the television-viewing 
public, but the kind of special interest niche easily catered for in digital 
culture. Eternally suspended, never to be freed, their plight - and indeed 
their provenance - never to be fully explained, Sapphire and Steel’s 
internment in this cafe from nowhere is prophetic for a general 
condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped. 

The slow cancellation of the future 

It is the contention of this book that 21st-century culture is marked by 
the same anachronism and inertia which afflicted Sapphire and Steel in 
their final adventure. But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a 
superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up 
of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of 
comment; it is now so prevalent that is no longer even noticed. 

In his book After The Future, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi refers to the ‘the 

slow cancellation of the future [that] got underway in the 1970s and 
1980s.’ ‘But when I say “future”’, he elaborates, 

I am not referring to the direction of time. I am thinking, rather, of the 
psychological perception, which emerged in the cultural situation of 
progressive modernity, the cultural expectations that were fabricated 
during the long period of modern civilization, reaching a peak after 
the Second World War. These expectations were shaped in the 
conceptual frameworks of an ever progressing development, albeit 
through different methodologies: the Hegel-Marxist mythology of 
Aufhebung and founding of the new totality of Communism; the 
bourgeois mythology of a linear development of welfare and 
democracy; the technocratic mythology of the all-encom-passing 
power of scientific knowledge; and so on. 

My generation grew up at the peak of this mythological 
temporalization, and it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to get rid of 
it, and look at reality without this kind of temporal lens. I’ll never be 
able to live in accordance with the new reality, no matter how 
evident, unmistakable, or even dazzling its social planetary trends. 
(After The Future, AK Books, 2011, ppl8-19) 

Bifo is a generation older than me, but he and I are on the same side of a 
temporal split here. I, too, will never be able to adjust to the paradoxes 
of this new situation. The immediate temptation here is to fit what I’m 
saying into a wearily familiar narrative: it is a matter of the old failing to 
come to terms with the new, saying it was better in their day. Yet it is 
just this picture - with its assumption that the young are automatically 
at the leading edge of cultural change - that is now out of date. 

Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and 
incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier 
era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable 
forms. Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was 
through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who 
grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of 
cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of 
future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by 

performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in 
the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and 
played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the 
listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 
audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music 
really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the 
rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle 
record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like 
something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what 
music was, or could be. While 20th-century experimental culture was 
seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness 
was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing 
sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, 
alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We 
remain trapped in the 20th century, just as Sapphire and Steel were 
incarcerated in their roadside cafe. 

The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a 
deflation of expectations. There can be few who believe that in the 
coming year a record as great as, say, the Stooges’ Funhouse or Sly 
Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On will be released. Still less do we expect the 
kind of ruptures brought about by The Beatles or disco. The feeling of 
belatedness, of living after the gold rush, is as omnipresent as it is 
disavowed. Compare the fallow terrain of the current moment with the 
fecundity of previous periods and you will quickly be accused of 
‘nostalgia’. But the reliance of current artists on styles that were 
established long ago suggests that the current moment is in the grip of a 
formal nostalgia, of which more shortly. 

It is not that nothing happened in the period when the slow 
cancellation of the future set in. On the contrary, those 30 years have 
been a time of massive, traumatic change. In the UK, the election of 
Margaret Thatcher had brought to an end the uneasy compromises of the 
so-called postwar social consensus. Thatcher’s neoliberal programme in 
politics was reinforced by a transnational restructuring of the capitalist 
economy. The shift into so-called Post-Fordism - with globalisation, 
ubiquitous computerisation and the casualisation of labour - resulted in 
a complete transformation in the way that work and leisure were 
organised. In the last 10 to 15 years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile 

telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday 
experience beyond all recognition. Yet, perhaps because of all this, 
there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and 
articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, 
there is no present to grasp and articulate any more. 

Consider the fate of the concept of ‘futuristic’ music. The ‘futuristic’ in 
music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be 
different; it has become an established style, much like a particular 
typographical font. Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come 
up with something like the music of Kraftwerk, even though this is now 
as antique as Glenn Miller’s big band jazz was when the German group 
began experimenting with synthesizers in the early 1970s. 

Where is the 21st-century equivalent of Kraftwerk? If Kraftwerk’s 
music came out of a casual intolerance of the already-established, then 
the present moment is marked by its extraordinary accommodation 
towards the past. More than that, the very distinction between past and 
present is breaking down. In 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away 
than they do today. Since then, cultural time has folded back on itself, 
and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange 

Two examples will suffice to introduce this peculiar temporality. 
When I first saw the video for the Arctic Monkeys’ 2005 single ‘I Bet You 
Look Good on the Dancefloor’, I genuinely believed that it was some lost 
artifact from circa 1980. Everything in the video - the lighting, the 
haircuts, the clothes - had been assembled to give the impression that 
this was a performance on BBC2’s ‘serious rock show’ The Old Grey 
Whisde Test Furthermore, there was no discordance between the look 
and the sound. At least to a casual listen, this could quite easily have 
been a postpunk group from the early 1980s. Certainly, if one performs a 
version of the thought experiment I described above, it’s easy to imagine 
‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ being broadcast on The Old 
Grey Whisde Test in 1980, and producing no sense of disorientation in 
the audience. Like me, they might have imagined that the references to 
‘1984’ in the lyrics referred to the future. 

There ought to be something astonishing about this. Count back 25 
years from 1980, and you are at the beginning of rock and roll. A record 
that sounded like Buddy Holly or Elvis in 1980 would have sounded out 

of time. Of course, such records were released in 1980, but they were 
marketed as retro. If the Arctic Monkeys weren’t positioned as a ‘retro’ 
group, it is partly because, by 2005, there was no ‘now’ with which to 
contrast their retrospection. In the 1990s, it was possible to hold 
something like Britpop revivalism to account by comparing it to the 
experimentalism happening on the UK dance underground or in US R&B. 
By 2005, the rates of innovation in both these areas had enormously 
slackened. UK dance music remains much more vibrant than rock, but 
the changes that happen there are tiny, incremental, and detectable 
largely only by initiates - there is none of the dislocation of sensation 
that you heard in the shift from Rave to Jungle and from Jungle to 
Garage in the 1990s. As I write this, one of the dominant sounds in pop 
(the globalised club music that has supplanted R&B) resembles nothing 
more than Eurotrance, a particularly bland European 1990s cocktail 
made from some of the most flavourless components of House and 

Second example. I first heard Amy Winehouse’s version of ‘Valerie’ 
while walking through a shopping mall, perhaps the perfect venue for 
consuming it. Up until then, I had believed that ‘Valerie’ was first 
recorded by indie plodders the Zutons. But, for a moment, the record’s 
antiqued 1960s soul sound and the vocal (which on a casual listen I 
didn’t at first recognise as Winehouse) made me temporarily revise this 
belief: surely the Zutons’ version of the track was a cover of this 
apparently ‘older’ track, which I had not heard until now? Naturally, it 
didn’t take me long to realise that the ‘60s soul sound’ was actually a 
simulation; this was indeed a cover of the Zutons’ track, done in the 
souped-up retro style in which the record’s producer, Mark Ronson, has 

Ronson’s productions might have been designed to illustrate what 
Fredric Jameson called the ‘nostalgia mode’. Jameson identifies this 
tendency in his remarkably prescient writings on postmodernism, 
beginning in the 1980s. What makes ‘Valerie’ and the Arctic Monkeys 
typical of postmodern retro is the way in which they perform 
anachronism. While they are sufficiently ‘historical-sounding to pass on 
first listen as belonging to the period which they ape - there is 
something not quite right about them. Discrepancies in texture - the 
results of modern studio and recording techniques - mean that they 

belong neither to the present nor to the past but to some implied 
‘timeless’ era, an eternal 1960s or an eternal 80s. The ‘classic’ sound, its 
elements now serenely liberated from the pressures of historical 
becoming, can now be periodically buffed up by new technology. 

It is important to be clear about what Jameson means by the ‘nostalgia 
mode’. He is not referring to psychological nostalgia - indeed, the 
nostalgia mode as Jameson theorises it might be said to preclude 
psychological nostalgia, since it arises only when a coherent sense of 
historical time breaks down. The kind of figure capable of exhibiting and 
expressing a yearning for the past belongs, actually, to a 
paradigmatically modernist moment - think, for instance, of Proust’s and 
Joyce’s ingenious exercises in recovering lost time. Jameson’s nostalgia 
mode is better understood in terms of a formal attachment to the 
techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of a retreat from the 
modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to 
contemporary experience. Jameson’s example is Lawrence Kasdan’s now 
half-forgotten film Body Heat (1981), which, although it was officially set 
in the 1980s, feels as if it belongs to the 30s. ‘Body Heat is technically 
not a nostalgia film,’ Jameson writes, 

since it takes place in a contemporary setting, in a little Florida village 
near Miami. On the other hand, this technical contemporaneity is most 
ambiguous indeed...Technically,...its objects (its cars, for instance) are 
1980s products, but everything in the film conspires to blur that 
immediate contemporary reference and to make it possible to receive 
this too as nostalgia work - as a narrative set in some indefinable 
nostalgic past, an eternal 1930s, say, beyond history. It seems to me 
exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films 
invading and colonizing even those movies today which have 
contemporary settings, as though, for some reason, we were unable 
today to focus our own present, as though we had become incapable 
of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience. 
But if that is so, then it is a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism 
itself - or, at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom of 
a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history. 
(‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected 

Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, Verso, 1998, pp9-10.) 

What blocks Body Heat from being a period piece or a nostalgia picture 
in any straightforward way is its disavowal of any explicit reference to 
the past. The result is anachronism, and the paradox is that this ‘blurring 
of official contemporaneity’, this ‘waning of historicity’ is increasingly 
typical of our experience of cultural products. Another of Jameson’s 
examples of the nostalgia mode is Star Wars: 

one of the most important cultural experiences of the generations that 
grew up from the 1930s to the 1950s was the Saturday afternoon 
series of the Buck Rogers type - alien villains, true American heroes, 
heroines in distress, the death ray or the doomsday box, and the cliff- 
hanger at the end whose miraculous solution was to be witnessed next 
Saturday afternoon. Star Wars reinvents this experience in the form of 
a pastiche; there is no point to a parody of such series, since they are 
long extinct. Far from being a pointless satire of such dead forms, Star 
Wars satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to 
experience them again: it is a complex object in which on some first 
level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while 
the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic 
desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old 
aesthetic artefacts through once again. (‘Postmodernism and 
Consumer Society’, p8) 

There is no nostalgia for a historical period here (or if there is, it is only 
indirect): the longing of which Jameson writes is a yearning for a form. 
Star Wars is a particularly resonant example of postmodern anachronism, 
because of the way it used technology to obfuscate its archaic form. 
Belying its origins in these fusty adventure series forms, Star Wars could 
appear new because its then unprecedented special effects relied upon 
the latest technology. If, in a paradigmatically modernist way, Kraftwerk 
used technology to allow new forms to emerge, the nostalgia mode 
subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old. The effect 
was to disguise the disappearance of the future as its opposite. 

The future didn’t disappear overnight. Berardi’s phrase ‘the slow 

cancellation of the future’ is so apt because it captures the gradual yet 
relentless way in which the future has been eroded over the last 30 
years. If the late 1970s and early 80s were the moment when the current 
crisis of cultural temporality could first be felt, it was only during the 
first decade of the 21st century that what Simon Reynolds calls 
‘dyschronia’ has become endemic. This dyschronia, this temporal 
disjuncture, ought to feel uncanny, yet the predominance of what 
Reynolds calls ‘retro-mania’ means that it has lost any unheimlich charge: 
anachronism is now taken for granted. Jameson’s postmodernism - with 
its tendencies towards retrospection and pastiche - has been naturalised. 
Take someone like the stupendously successful Adele: although her 
music is not marketed as retro, there is nothing that marks out her 
records as belonging to the 21st century either. Like so much 
contemporary cultural production, Adele’s recordings are saturated with 
a vague but persistent feeling of the past without recalling any specific 
historical moment. 

Jameson equates the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’ with the 
‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, but he says little about why the two are 
synonymous. Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism 
lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? Perhaps we can venture 
a couple of provisional conjectures here. The first concerns consumption. 
Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and 
security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well- 
established and the familiar? Paul Virilio has written of a ‘polar inertia’ 
that is a kind of effect of and counterweight to the massive speeding up 
of communication. Virilio’s example is Howard Hughes, living in one 
hotel room for 15 years, endlessly rewatching Ice Station Zebra. Hughes, 
once a pioneer in aeronautics, became an early explorer of the 
existential terrain that cyberspace will open up, where it is no longer 
necessary to physically move in order to access the whole history of 
culture. Or, as Berardi has argued, the intensity and precariousness of 
late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are 
simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The combination of 
precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of 
attention. In this insomniac, inundated state, Berardi claims, culture 
becomes de-eroticised. The art of seduction takes too much time, and, 
according to Berardi, something like Viagra answers not to a biological 

but to a cultural deficit: desperately short of time, energy and attention, 
we demand quick fixes. Like another of Berardi’s examples, 
pornography, retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal 
variation on an already familiar satisfaction. 

The other explanation for the link between late capitalism and 
retrospection centres on production. Despite all its rhetoric of novelty 
and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically 
deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the 
UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants 
constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in 
popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent 
ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the 
spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce 
something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. 
As public service broadcasting became ‘marketised’, there was an 
increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what 
was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time 
available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural 
production drastically declined. If there’s one factor above all else which 
contributes to cultural conservatism, it is the vast inflation in the cost of 
rent and mortgages. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural 
invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in 
the punk and postpunk scenes) coincided with the availability of 
squatted and cheap property in those cities. Since then, the decline of 
social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in 
property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy 
available for cultural production has massively diminished. But perhaps 
it was only with the arrival of digital communicative capitalism that this 
reached terminal crisis point. Naturally, the besieging of attention 
described by Berardi applies to producers as much as consumers. 
Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal - from, for 
instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms - but the 
currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its 
endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, 
has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before. Or, as Simon 
Reynolds so pithily put it, in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but 
culture has slowed down. 

No matter what the causes for this temporal pathology are, it is clear 
that no area of Western culture is immune from them. The former 
redoubts of futurism, such as electronic music, no longer offer escape 
from formal nostalgia. Music culture is in many ways paradigmatic of 
the fate of culture under post-Fordist capitalism. At the level of form, 
music is locked into pastiche and repetition. But its infrastructure has 
been subject to massive, unpredictable change: the old paradigms of 
consumption, retail and distribution are disintegrating, with 
downloading eclipsing the physical object, record shops closing and 
cover art disappearing. 

Why hauntology? 

What has the concept of hauntology to do with all this? It was in fact 
with some reluctance that hauntology started to be applied to the 
electronic music of the middle of the last decade. I’d generally found 
Jacques Derrida, the inventor of the term, a frustrating thinker. As soon 
as it was established in certain areas of the academy, deconstruction, the 
philosophical project which Derrida founded, installed itself as a pious 
cult of indeterminacy, which at its worst made a lawyerly virtue of 
avoiding any definitive claim. Deconstruction was a kind of pathology of 
scepticism, which induced hedging, infirmity of purpose and compulsory 
doubt in its followers. It elevated particular modes of academic practice 
- Heidegger’s priestly opacity, literary theory’s emphasis on the ultimate 
instability of any interpretation - into quasi-theological imperatives. 
Derrida’s circumlocutions seemed like a disintensifying influence. 

It’s by no means irrelevant to point out here that my first encounter 
with Derrida took place in what is now a vanished milieu. It came in the 
pages of the New Musical Express in the 1980s, where Derrida’s name 
would be mentioned by the most exciting writers. (And, actually, part of 
my frustration with Derrida’s work came out of disappointment. The 
enthusiasm of NME writers like Ian Penman and Mark Sinker for 
Derrida, and the formal and conceptual inventiveness it seemed to 
provoke in their writing, created expectations which Derrida’s own work 
couldn’t meet when I eventually came to read it.) It’s hard to believe this 
now but, along with public service broadcasting, the NME constituted a 
kind of supplementary-informal education system, in which theory 

acquired a strange, lustrous glamour. I had also seen Derrida in Ken 
McMullen’s film Ghost Dance, shown late at night on Channel 4 in the 
early days of the network, at a time before we had a VCR, when I had to 
resort to washing my face with cold water to try to keep myself awake. 

Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ in his Specters of Marx: The State 
of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. ‘To haunt 
does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting 
into the very construction of a concept,’ he wrote. (Jacques Derrida, 
Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New 
International, Routledge, 1994, p202) Hauntology was this concept, or 
puncept. The pun was on the philosophical concept of ontology, the 
philosophical study of what can be said to exist. Hauntology was the 
successor to previous concepts of Derrida’s such as the trace and 
differance; like those earlier terms, it referred to the way in which 
nothing enjoys a purely positive existence. Everything that exists is 
possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede 
and surround it, allowing it to possess such consistency and intelligibility 
that it does. In the famous example, any particular linguistic term gains 
its meaning not from its own positive qualities but from its difference 
from other terms. Hence Derrida’s ingenious deconstructions of the 
‘metaphysics of presence’ and ‘phonocentrism’, which expose the way in 
which particular dominant forms of thought had (incoherently) 
privileged the voice over writing. 

But hauntology explicitly brings into play the question of time in a 
way that had not quite been the case with the trace or differance. One of 
the repeated phrases in Specters of Marx is from Hamlet, ‘the time is out 
of joint’ and in his recent Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, 
Martin Hagglund argues that it is possible to see all of Derrida’s work in 
relation to this concept of broken time. ‘Derrida’s aim,’ Hagglund argues, 
‘is to formulate a general ‘hauntology’ (hantologie), in contrast to the 
traditional ‘ontology’ that thinks being in terms of self-identical 
presence. What is important about the figure of the specter, then, is that 
it cannot be fully present: it has no being in itself but marks a relation to 
what is no longer or not yet’ (Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, 
Stanford University Press, 2008, p82) 

Is hauntology, then, some attempt to revive the supernatural, or is it 
just a figure of speech? The way out of this unhelpful opposition is to 

think of hauntology as the agency of the virtual, with the spectre 
understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without 
(physically) existing. The great thinkers of modernity, Freud as well as 
Marx, had discovered different modes of this spectral causality. The late 
capitalist world, governed by the abstractions of finance, is very clearly 
a world in which virtualities are effective, and perhaps the most ominous 
‘spectre of Marx’ is capital itself. But as Derrida underlines in his 
interviews in the Ghost Dance film, psychoanalysis is also a ‘science of 
ghosts’, a study of how reverberant events in the psyche become 

Referring back to Hagglund’s distinction between the no longer and the 
not yet, we can provisionally distinguish two directions in hauntology. 
The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which 
remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat’, a 
fatal pattern). The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in 
actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the 
virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). The 
‘spectre of communism’ that Marx and Engels had warned of in the first 
lines of the Communist Manifesto was just this kind of ghost: a virtuality 
whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the 
present state of things. 

In addition to being another moment in Derrida’s own philosophical 
project of deconstruction, Specters of Marx was also a specific 
engagement with the immediate historical context provided by the 
disintegration of the Soviet empire. Or rather, it was an engagement 
with the alleged disappearance of history trumpeted by Francis 
Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man. What would 
happen now that actually existing socialism had collapsed, and 
capitalism could assume full spectrum dominance, its claims to global 
dominion were thwarted not any longer by the existence of a whole 
other bloc, but by small islands of resistance such as Cuba and North 
Korea? The era of what I have called ‘capitalist realism’ - the widespread 
belief that there is no alternative to capitalism - has been haunted not 
by the apparition of the spectre of communism, but by its disappearance. 
As Derrida wrote: 

There is today in the world a dominant discourse...This dominating 
discourse often has the manic, jubilatory, and incantatory form that 
Freud assigned to the so-called triumphant phase of mourning work. 
The incantation repeats and ritualizes itself, it holds forth and holds to 
formulas, like any animistic magic. To the rhythm of a cadenced 
march, it proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and 
along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It 
says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival 
of economic and political liberalism! (Specters of Marx, p64) 

Specters of Marx was also a series of speculations about the media (or 
post-media) technologies that capital had installed on its now global 
territory. In this sense, hauntology was by no means something rarefied; 
it was endemic in the time of ‘techno-tele-discursivity, techno-tele- 
iconicity’ ‘simulacra’ and ‘synthetic images’. This discussion of the ‘tele-’ 
shows that hauntology concerns a crisis of space as well as time. As 
theorists such as Virilio and Jean Baudrillard had long acknowledged - 
and Specters of Marx can also be read as Derrida settling his account with 
these thinkers - ‘tele-technologies’ collapse both space and time. Events 
that are spatially distant become available to an audience 
instantaneously. Neither Baudrillard nor Derrida would live to see the 
full effects - no doubt I should say the full effects so far - of the ‘tele¬ 
technology’ that has most radically contracted space and time, 
cyberspace. But here we have a first reason why the concept of 
hauntology should have become attached to popular culture in the first 
decade of the 21st century. For it was at this moment when cyberspace 
enjoyed unprecedented dominion over the reception, distribution and 
consumption of culture - especially music culture. 

When it was applied to music culture - in my own writing, and in that 
of other critics such as Simon Reynolds and Joseph Stannard - 
hauntology first of all named a confluence of artists. The word 
confluence is crucial here. For these artists - William Basinski, the Ghost 
Box label, The Caretaker, Burial, Mordant Music, Philip Jeck, amongst 
others - had converged on a certain terrain without actually influencing 
one another. What they shared was not a sound so much as a sensibility, 
an existential orientation. The artists that came to be labelled 

hauntological were suffused with an overwhelming melancholy; and 
they were preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised 
memory - hence a fascination with television, vinyl records, audiotape, 
and with the sounds of these technologies breaking down. This fixation 
on materialised memory led to what is perhaps the principal sonic 
signature of hauntology: the use of crackle, the surface noise made by 
vinyl. Crackle makes us aware that we are listening to a time that is out 
of joint; it won’t allow us to fall into the illusion of presence. It reverses 
the normal order of listening according to which, as Ian Penman put it, 
we are habituated to the ‘re’ of recording being repressed. We aren’t only 
made aware that the sounds we are hearing are recorded, we are also 
made conscious of the playback systems we use to access the recordings. 
And hovering behind much sonic hauntology is the difference between 
analogue and digital: so many hauntological tracks have been about 
revisiting the physicality of analogue media in the era of digital ether. 
MP3 files remain material, of course, but their materiality is occulted 
from us, by contrast with the tactile materiality of vinyl records and 
even compact discs. 

No doubt a yearning for this older regime of materiality plays a part in 
the melancholia that saturates hauntological music. As to the deeper 
causes of this melancholia, we need look no further than the title of 
Leyland Kirby’s album: Sadly , The Future Is No Longer What It Was. In 
hauntological music there is an implicit acknowledgement that the hopes 
created by postwar electronica or by the euphoric dance music of the 
1990s have evaporated - not only has the future not arrived, it no longer 
seems possible. Yet at the same time, the music constitutes a refusal to 
give up on the desire for the future. This refusal gives the melancholia a 
political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to 
the closed horizons of capitalist realism. 

Not giving up the ghost 

In Freud’s terms, both mourning and melancholia are about loss. But 
whereas mourning is the slow, painful withdrawal of libido from the lost 
object, in melancholia, libido remains attached to what has disappeared. 
For mourning to properly begin, Derrida says in Specters of Marx, the 
dead must be conjured away: ‘the conjuration has to make sure that the 

dead will not come back: quick, do whatever is needed to keep the 
cadaver localised, in a safe place, decomposing right where it was 
inhumed, or even embalmed as they liked to do in Moscow’ (Specters of 
Marx, pi 20) But there are those who refuse to allow the body to be 
interred, just as there is a danger of (over)killing something to such an 
extent that it becomes a spectre, a pure virtuality. ‘Capitalist societies,’ 
Derrida writes, ‘can always heave a sigh of relief and say to themselves: 
communism is finished, but it did not take place, it was only a ghost. 
They do no more than disavow the undeniable itself: a ghost never dies, 
it remains always to come and to come-back.’ (Specters of Marx, pi 23) 

Haunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about 
refusing to give up the ghost or - and this can sometimes amount to the 
same thing - the refusal of the ghost to give up on us. The spectre will 
not allow us to settle into/ for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean 
in a world governed by capitalist realism. 

What’s at stake in 21st century hauntology is not the disappearance of 
a particular object. What has vanished is a tendency, a virtual trajectory. 
One name for this tendency is popular modernism. The cultural ecology 
that I referred to above - the music press and the more challenging parts 
of public service broadcasting - were part of a UK popular modernism, 
as were postpunk, brutalist architecture, Penguin paperbacks and the 
BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In popular modernism, the elitist project of 
modernism was retrospectively vindicated. At the same time, popular 
culture definitively established that it did not have to be populist. 
Particular modernist techniques were not only disseminated but 
collectively reworked and extended, just as the modernist task of 
producing forms which were adequate to the present moment was taken 
up and renewed. Which is to say that, although of course I didn’t realise 
it at the time, the culture which shaped most of my early expectations 
was essentially popular modernist, and the writing that has been 
collected in Ghosts Of My Life is about coming to terms with the 
disappearance of the conditions which allowed it to exist. 

It’s worth pausing a moment here to distinguish the haunto-logical 
melancholia I’m talking about from two other kinds of melancholia. The 
first is what Wendy Brown calls ‘left melancholy’. On the face of it, what 
I’ve said risks being heard as a kind of leftist melancholic resignation: 
although they weren’t perfect, the institutions of social democracy were much 

better than anything we can hope for now, perhaps the best we can ever hope 
for... In her essay ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’, Brown attacks ‘a Left that 
operates without either a deep and radical critique of the status quo or a 
compelling alternative to the existing order of things. But perhaps even 
more troubling, it is a Left that has become more attached to its 
impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home 
dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left 
that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain 
strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of 
desire is backward looking and punishing.’ (Wendy Brown, ‘Resisting 
Left Melancholy’, boundary 2 26:3, 1999, p26). Yet much of what makes 
the melancholy Brown analyses so pernicious is its disavowed quality. 
Brown’s left melancholic is a depressive who believes he is realistic; 
someone who no longer has any expectation that his desire for radical 
transformation could be achieved, but who doesn’t recognise that he has 
given up. In her discussion of Brown’s essay in The Communist Horizon, 
Jodi Dean refers to Lacan’s formula: ‘the only thing one can be guilty of 
is giving ground relative to one’s desire’ and the shift that Brown 
describes - from a left that confidently assumed the future belonged to 
it, to a left that makes a virtue of its own incapacity to act - seems to 
exemplify the transition from desire (which in Lacanian terms is the 
desire to desire) to drive (an enjoyment through failure). The kind of 
melancholia I’m talking about, by contrast, consists not in giving up on 
desire but in refusing to yield. It consists, that is to say, in a refusal to 
adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality’ - even if the cost of that 
refusal is that you feel like an outcast in your own time... 

The second kind of melancholia that hauntological melancholia must 
be distinguished from is what Paul Gilroy calls ‘postcolonial 
melancholia’. Gilroy defines this melancholia in terms of an avoidance; it 
is about evading ‘the painful obligations to work through the grim 
details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt 
into a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building 
of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect 
of exposure to either strangers or otherness.’ (Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial 
Melancholia, Columbia University Press, 2005, p99) It comes out of a 
‘loss of a fantasy of omnipotence’. Like Brown’s left melancholy, then, 
postcolonial melancholia is a disavowed form of melancholia: its 

‘signature combination’, Gilroy writes, is that of ‘manic elation with 
misery, self-loathing, and ambivalence.’ (Postcolonial Melancholia, pl04) 
The postcolonial melancholic doesn’t (just) refuse to accept change; at 
some level, he refuses to accept that change has happened at all. He 
incoherently holds on to the fantasy of omnipotence by experiencing 
change only as decline and failure, for which, naturally, the immigrant 
other must be blamed (the incoherence here is obvious: if the 
postcolonial melancholic were really omnipotent, how could he be 
harmed by the immigrant?). At first sight, it might be possible to see 
hauntological melancholia as a variant of postcolonial melancholia: 
another example of white boy whingeing over lost privileges...Yet this 
would be to grasp what has been lost only in the terms of the worst kind 
of resentment ressentiment, or in terms of what Alex Williams has called 
negative solidarity, in which we are invited to celebrate, not an increase 
in liberation, but the fact that another group has now been immiserated; 
and this is especially sad when the group in question was predominantly 
working class. 

Nostalgia compared to what? 

This raises the question of nostalgia again: is hauntology, as many of its 
critics have maintained, simply a name for nostalgia? Is it about pining 
for social democracy and its institutions? Given the ubiquity of the 
formal nostalgia I described above, the question has to be, nostalgia 
compared to what? It seems strange to have to argue that comparing the 
present unfavourably with the past is not automatically nostalgic in any 
culpable way, but such is the power of the dehistoricising pressures of 
populism and PR that the claim has to be explicitly made. PR and 
populism propagate the relativistic illusion that intensity and innovation 
are equally distributed throughout all cultural periods. It is the tendency 
to falsely overestimate the past that makes nostalgia egregious: but, one 
of the lessons of Andy Beckett’s history of Britain in the 1970s, When The 
Lights Went Out is that, in many ways, we falsely underestimate a period 
like the 70s - Beckett in effect shows that capitalist realism was built on 
a myth-monstering of the decade. Conversely, we are induced by 
ubiquitous PR into falsely overestimating the present, and those who 
can’t remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them 


If the 1970s were in many respects better than neoliberalism wants us 
to remember them, we must also recognise the extent to which the 
capitalist dystopia of 21st-century culture is not something that was 
simply imposed on us - it was built out of our captured desires. ‘Almost 
everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has 
happened,’ Jeremy Gilbert has observed. ‘Everything my political 
mentors warned might happen, since I was a boy growing up on a poor 
council estate (that’s a housing project, if you’re American) in the North 
of England in the early 80s, or a high-school student reading 
denunciations of Thatcherism in the left press a few years later, has 
turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was 
living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all 
afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.’ (Jeremy Gilbert, 
‘Moving on from the Market Society: Culture (and Cultural Studies) in a 
Post-Democratic Age’, 

But we shouldn’t have to choose between, say, the internet and social 
security. One way of thinking about hauntology is that its lost futures do 
not force such false choices; instead, what haunts is the spectre of a 
world in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be 
combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social 
democracy could muster. 

Popular modernism was by no means a completed project, some 
pristine zenith that needed no further improvement. In the 1970s, 
certainly, culture was opened up to working-class inventiveness in a way 
that is now scarcely imaginable to us; but this was also a time when 
casual racism, sexism and homophobia were routine features of the 
mainstream. Needless to say, the struggles against racism and 
(hetero)sexism have not in the meantime been won, but they have made 
significant hegemonic advances, even as neoliberalism has corroded the 
social democratic infrastructure which allowed increased working class 
participation in cultural production. The disarticulation of class from 
race, gender and sexuality has in fact been central to the success of the 
neoliberal project - making it seem, grotesquely, as if neoliberalism were 
in some way a precondition of the gains made in anti-racist, anti-sexist 

and anti-heterosexist struggles. 

What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but 
the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for 
which Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that 
social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at 
the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as 
a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What 
should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social 
democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained 
us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres - the spectres 
of lost futures - reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist 

Music culture was central to the projection of the futures which have 
been lost. The term music culture is crucial here, because it is the culture 
constellated around music (fashion, discourse, cover art) that has been 
as important as the music itself in conjuring seductively unfamiliar 
worlds. The destranging of music culture in the 21st century - the ghastly 
return of industry moguls and boys next door to mainstream pop; the 
premium put on ‘reality’ in popular entertainment; the increased 
tendency of those in music culture to dress and look like digitally and 
surgically enhanced versions of regular folk; the emphasis placed on 
gymnastic emoting in singing - has played a major role in conditioning 
us to accept consumer capitalism’s model of ordinariness. Michael Hardt 
and Antonio Negri are right when they say that the revolutionary take 
on race, gender and sexuality struggles goes far beyond the demand that 
different identities be recognised. Ultimately, it is about the dismantling 
of identity. The ‘revolutionary process of the abolition of identity, we 
should keep in mind, is monstrous, violent, and traumatic. Don’t try to 
save yourself—in fact, your self has, to be sacrificed! This does not mean 
that liberation casts us into an indifferent sea with no objects of 
identification, but rather the existing identities will no longer serve as 
anchors.’ (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Harvard 
University Press, 2011, p339) While Hardt and Negri are correct to warn 
of the traumatic dimensions of this transformation, as they are also 
aware, it also has its joyful aspects. Throughout the 20th century, music 
culture was a probe that played a major role in preparing the population 
to enjoy a future that was no longer white, male or heterosexual, a future 

in which the relinquishing of identities that were in any case poor 
fictions would be a blessed relief. In the 21st century, by contrast - and 
the fusion of pop with reality TV is absolutely indicative of this - 
popular music culture has been reduced to being a mirror held up to late 
capitalist subjectivity. 

By now, it should already be very clear that there are different senses 
of the word hauntology at play in Ghosts Of My Life. There is the specific 
sense in which it has been applied to music culture, and a more general 
sense, where it refers to persistences, repetitions, prefigurations. There 
are also more or less benign versions of hauntology. Ghosts Of My Life 
will move amongst these different uses of the term. 

The book is about the ghosts of my life, so there is necessarily a 
personal dimension to what follows. Yet my take on the old phrase ‘the 
personal is political’ has been to look for the (cultural, structural, 
political) conditions of subjectivity. The most productive way of reading 
the ‘personal is political’ is to interpret it as saying: the personal is 
impersonal. It’s miserable for anyone at all to he themselves (still more, to 
be forced to sell themselves). Culture, and the analysis of culture, is 
valuable insofar as it allows an escape from ourselves. 

Such insights have been hard won. Depression is the most malign 
spectre that has dogged my life - and I use the term depression to 
distinguish the dreary solipsism of the condition from the more lyrical 
(and collective) desolations of haunto-logical melancholia. I started 
blogging in 2003 whilst still in such a state of depression that I found 
everyday life scarcely bearable. Some of these writings were part of the 
working through of the condition, and it’s no accident that my (so far 
successful) escape from depression coincided with a certain 
externalisation of negativity: the problem wasn’t (just) me but the 
culture around me. It’s clear to me that now the period from roughly 
2003 to the present will be recognised - not in the far distant future, but 
very soon - as the worst period for (popular) culture since the 1950s. To 
say that the culture was desolate is not to say that there weren’t traces of 
other possibilities. Ghosts Of My Life is an attempt to engage with some 
of these traces. 

Ghosts Of My Life: Goldie, Japan, Tricky 

It must have been 1994 when I first saw Rufige Kru’s ‘Ghosts Of My Life’ 
on the shelves of a high street record store. The four-track EP had been 
released in 1993, but this was a time - before internet hype and online 
discographies - when the traces of the underground took longer to 
surface. The EP was a prime example of darkside Jungle. Jungle was a 
moment in what Simon Reynolds would come to call the ‘hardcore 
continuum’: the series of mutations on the British dance music 
underground triggered by the introduction of the breakbeat into Rave, 
passing from hardcore Rave into Jungle, Speed Garage, 2-step. 

I’ll always prefer the name Jungle to the more pallid and misleading 
term drum and bass, because much of the allure of the genre came from 
the fact that no drums or bass guitar were played. Instead of simulating 
the already-existing qualities of ‘real’ instruments, digital technology was 
exploited to produce sounds that had no pre-existing correlates. The 
function of timestretching - which allowed the time signature of a sound 
to be changed, without its pitch being altered - transformed sampled 
breakbeats into rhythms that no human could play. Producers would 
also use the strange metallic excrescence that was produced when 
samples were slowed down and the software had to fill in the gaps. The 
result was an abstract rush that made chemicals all but redundant: 
accelerating our metabolisms, heightening our expectations, 
reconstructing our nervous systems. 

It is also worth holding onto the name Jungle because it evokes a 
terrain: the urban Jungle, or rather the underside of a metropolis that 
was just in the process of being digitalised. It has sometimes seemed as if 
the use of the word ‘urban’ is a polite synonym for ‘black’ music. Yet it’s 
possible to hear ‘urban’, not as some disavowal of race, but as an 
invocation of the powers of cosmopolitan conviviality. At the same time, 
however, Jungle was by no means an unequivocal celebration of the 
urban. If Jungle celebrated anything, it was the lure of the dark. Jungle 
liberated the suppressed libido in the dystopian impulse, releasing and 

amplifying the jouissance that comes from anticipating the annihilation 
of all current certainties. As Kodwo Eshun argued, in Jungle there was a 
libidinisation of anxiety itself, a transformation of fight and flight 
impulses into enjoyment. 

This was deeply ambivalent: at one level, what we were hearing here 
was a kind of sonic fictional intensification and extrapolation of the 
neoliberal world’s destruction of solidarity and security. Nostalgia for 
the familiarity of smalltown life was rejected in Jungle, but its digital 
city was devoid of the comfort of strangers: no-one could be trusted 
here. Jungle took many of its cues from the Hobbesian scenarios of 
1980s films such as Blade Runner ; Terminator and Predator 2. It’s no 
accident that all three of these films are about hunting. Jungle’s world 
was one in which entities - human as well as nonhuman - stalked each 
other for sport as well as for sustenance. Yet darkside Jungle was about 
the thrill of the chased, about the videogame euphoria-anxiety of 
eluding ruthless predators, as much as it was about the exhilaration of 
running prey to ground. 

At another level, darkside Jungle projected the very future that capital 
can only disavow. Capital can never openly admit that it is a system 
based on inhuman rapacity; the Terminator can never remove its human 
mask. Jungle not only ripped the mask off, it actively identified with the 
inorganic circuitry beneath: hence the android/ death’s head that Rufige 
Kru used as their logo. The paradoxical identification with death, and 
the equation of death with the inhuman future was more than a cheap 
nihilist gesture. At a certain point, the unrelieved negativity of the 
dystopian drive trips over into a perversely utopian gesture, and 
annihilation becomes the condition of the radically new. 

I was a postgraduate student in 1994, and I didn’t have either the 
nerve or the money to hang around specialist record shops to pick up all 
the latest releases. So I would access Jungle tracks in much the same 
fitful way that I had followed American comics in the 70s. I would pick 
them up where and when I could, usually on CD compilations issued 
long after their dubplate freshness had cooled. For the most part, it was 
impossible to impose any narrative on Jungle’s relentless flow. Fittingly 
for a sound that was so depersonalised and dehumanised, the names of 
the acts tended to be cryptic cyberpunk tags, disconnected from any 
biography or place. Jungle was best enjoyed as an anonymous electro- 

libidinal current that seemed to pass through producers, as a series of 
affects and FX that were de-linked from authors. It sounded like some 
audio unlife form, a ferocious, feral artificial intelligence that had been 
unwittingly called up in the studio, the breakbeats like genetically- 
augmented hounds straining to be free of the leash. 

Rufige Kru were one of the few Jungle acts about which I knew a 
little. Because of Simon Reynolds’ evangelical pieces on Jungle in the 
now long-defunct Melody Maker, I was aware that Rufige Kru was one of 
the aliases used by Goldie, who, almost uniquely in the anonymity of the 
Jungle scene, was already becoming a recognisable face. If there was to 
be a face for this faceless music, then Goldie - a mixed race former 
graffiti artist with gold teeth - was a strong candidate. Goldie was 
formed by hip-hop culture, but irrevocably altered by Rave’s collective 
delirium. His career became a parable for a whole series of impasses. 
The temptation for any producer emerging from the scenius of the 
hardcore continuum was always to renounce the essentially collective 
nature of the conditions of production. It was a temptation that Goldie 
was unable to resist, but, tellingly, his records declined the very moment 
he stopped using impersonal, collective names for his projects, and 
started releasing them under the (albeit assumed) name Goldie. His first 
album, Timeless, smoothed out the anorganic angles of Jungle with the 
use of analogue instruments and an alarming jazz-funk tastefulness. 
Goldie became a minor celebrity, took a part in the BBC soap opera 
EastEnders, and only in 2008 released the kind of album that Rufige Kru 
should have put out 15 years before. The lesson was clear: urban British 
artists can only be successful if they depart from the scenius, if they 
leave behind the collective. 

The first records Goldie and his collaborators released under the 
names Rufige Kru and Metalheads were still high on Rave’s carny buzz. 
1992’s ‘Terminator’ was the most epochal: jittery with excitable rave 
stabs, its phased and timestretched beats suggested aberrant, impossible 
geometries, while its vocal samples - from Linda Hamilton in Terminator 
- talked of time paradoxes and fatal strategies. The record sounded like a 
commentary on itself: as if the temporal anomalies that Hamilton 
described - ‘you’re talking about things that I haven’t done yet in the 
past tense’ - were made physical in the vertiginously imploding sound. 

As Rufige Kru progressed their sound became sleeker. Where the early 

records put one in mind of an assemblage of dismembered organs that 
had been crudely stitched together, the later releases more closely 
resembled mutants that had been genetically engineered. The unruly and 
volatile Rave elements had gradually drained away, to be replaced by 
textures that were starker, moodier. The titles - ‘Dark Rider’, ‘Fury’, 
‘Manslaughter’ - told their own story. As you listened, you felt like you 
were being pursued through a near-future brutalist arcade. Vocal 
samples were cut back, and became more subdued and ominous. 
‘Manslaughter’ features one of the most electrifying lines from Blade 
Runner’s rogue replicant Roy Batty: ‘If only you could see what I’ve seen, 
through your eyes’ - the perfect slogan for Jungle’s new mutants, 
engineered by street science to have heightened senses but a shorter life 

I bought any Rufige Kru record that I came upon, but ‘Ghosts Of My 
Life’ brought a special tingle of intrigue because of its title, with its 
suggestion of Japan’s 1981 art pop masterpiece, ‘Ghosts’. When I played 
the ‘Ghosts Of My Life’ 12’, I quickly realised with a shiver of 
exhilaration that the pitched down voice repeating the title phrase did 
indeed belong to Japan’s David Sylvian. But this wasn’t the only trace of 
‘Ghosts’. After some atonal washes and twitchy breakbeats, the track 
lurched to a sudden halt, and - in a moment that still takes my breath 
away when I listen to it now - a brief snatch of the spidery, abstract 
electronics instantly recognizable from the Japan record leapt into the 
chasm, before being immediately consumed by viscous bass ooze and the 
synthetic screeches that were the sonic signatures of darkside Jungle. 

Time had folded in on itself. One of my earliest pop fixations had 
returned, vindicated, in an unexpected context. Early 80s New Romantic 
synthpop, reviled and ridiculed in Britain, but revered in the dance 
music scenes of Detroit, New York and Chicago, was finally coming 
home to roost in the UK underground. Kodwo Eshun, then at work on his 
More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, would argue that 
synthpop played the same founding role for Techno, hip-hop and Jungle 
as delta blues did for rock, and it was as if a disavowed part of myself - 
a ghost from another part of my life - was being recovered, although in 
a permanently altered form. 

‘Just when I think I’m winning’ 

In 1982, I taped ‘Ghosts’ from the radio and chain-listened to it: pressing 
play, rewinding the cassette, repeating. ‘Ghosts’ is a record which, even 
now, compels you to keep replaying it. Partly, that’s because of the way 
the record teems with detail: you never feel you’ve fully grasped it all. 

Nothing else that Japan recorded was like ‘Ghosts’. It as an anomaly, 
not only because of its seeming confessionalism, exceptional in the work 
of a group which favoured aesthetic poses over emotional expression, 
but also because of its arrangement, its texture. Elsewhere on Tin Drum - 
the 1981 album from which ‘Ghosts’ came - Japan had developed a 
plastic ethno-funk, where electronics flitted through the elasticated 
rhythmic architecture created by the bass and drums. On ‘Ghosts’, 
however, there are no drums and no bassline. There is only percussion 
that sounds like metallic vertebrae being gently struck, and a suite of 
sounds so austerely synthetic that they could have come from 

‘Ghosts’ begins with chimes that make you feel like you are inside 
some metallic clock. The air is charged, an electrical field through which 
unintelligible radio-wave chitterings pass. At the same time, the track is 
pervaded by an immense stillness, a poise. Watch the group’s 
extraordinary live performance of ‘Ghosts’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test. 
They look as if they are tending their instruments rather than playing 

Only Sylvian appears animated, and then it’s only his face, half-hidden 
by the heavy fringe, that moves. The mannered angst of his vocal sits 
oddly with the electronic austerity of the music. Its sense of enervated 
foreboding is broken by the only trace of melodrama in the song - the 
synth stabs which, simulating the kind of strings you’d hear on a movie 
thriller-score, cue in the chorus. ‘Just when I think I’m win-ning/ when I’ve 
broken every door/ the ghosts of my life/ blow wild-er/ than the win-d’... 

What, exactly, are the ghosts that haunt Sylvian? The song derives 
much of its potency from declining to answer, from its lack of specificity: 
we can fill in the blanks with our own spectres. What’s clear is that it 
isn’t external contingencies which ruin his wellbeing. Something from 
his past - something he wants to have left behind - keeps returning. He 
can’t leave it behind because he carries it with him. Is he anticipating 

the destruction of his happiness, or has the destruction already 
happened? The present tense - or rather the hesitation between past and 
present tense - creates an ambiguity, suggesting a fatalistic eternity, a 
compulsion to repeat - a compulsion that might be a self-fulfilling 
prophecy. The ghosts return because he fears they will... 

It’s hard not to hear ‘Ghosts’ as a reflection of sorts on Japan’s career 
up to that point. The group was the culmination of a certain English take 
on art pop that began with Bowie and Roxy in the early 70s. They came 
from Beckenham, Catford, Lewisham the unglamorous conurbation 
where Kent joins South London - the same suburban hinterland from 
which David Bowie, Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux had come. As with 
most English art pop, Japan found their environment only a negative 
inspiration, something to escape from. ‘There was a conscious drive 
away from everything that childhood represented,’ Sylvian has 
remarked. Pop was the portal out of the prosaic. Music was only part of 
it. Art pop was a finishing school for working class autodidacts, where, 
by following up the clues left behind by earlier pioneers - the allusions 
secreted in lyrics, in track titles or in interview references - you could 
learn about things that weren’t on the formal curriculum for working 
class youth: fine art, European cinema, avant-garde literature...Changing 
your name was the first step, and Sylvian had traded his given name 
(Batt) for one that referred to Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Dolls, 
the group whose style Japan had begun by imitating. 

By the time of ‘Ghosts’, all of the ersatz Amerikan swagger of this 
Dolls phase is long forgotten, and Sylvian has long since perfected his 
plastic mass-produced copy of Bryan Ferry. In his analysis of Bryan 
Ferry’s voice, Ian Penman argues that its peculiar quality came from an 
only partly successful attempt to get his Geordie accent to forge a classic, 
timeless Englishness. Sylvian’s singing voice is the faking of a fake. The 
almost whinnying quality of Ferry’s angst is retained, but transposed into 
a pure styling devoid of emotional content. It is culture(d), not natural at 
all; prissy, ultra-affected, and, for that very reason, strangely lacking in 
affect. It couldn’t contrast more with Sylvian’s speaking voice at the time 
- awkward, tentative, strongly bearing all the traces of class and South 
London which his singing voice had sought to remove. ‘Sons of pioneers/ 
are hungry men. ’ 

‘Ghosts’ was paralysed by very English anxieties: you could imagine 

Pip from Great Expectations singing it. In England, working class escape 
is always haunted by the possibility that you will be found out, that your 
roots are showing. You won’t know some crucial rule of etiquette that 
you should. You will pronounce something wrongly - mispronunciation 
is a constant source of anxiety for the autodidact, because books don’t 
necessarily tell you how to say words. Is ‘Ghosts’ the moment when art 
pop confronts this fear - that class will out, that one’s background can 
never be transcended, that the rude spectres of Lewisham will return no 
matter how far East you travel? 

Japan had pursued art pop into a sheer superficiality, which exceeded 
even their inspirations in its depthless aestheticism. Tin Drum, the 1981 
album from which ‘Ghosts’ came, was art pop as Barthes pop, a 
conspicuous playing with signs for their own seductive sake. The album 
cover immediately drew you into their heavily confected world: Sylvian, 
his heavily sprayed, peroxided fringe falling artfully over his Trevor 
Horn specs, sits in a simulation of a simple Chinese dwelling, chopsticks 
in hand, as a Mao poster peels from the wall behind him. Everything is 
posed, every Sign selected with a fetishistic fastidiousness. Check the 
way his eyeshadow gives his eyelids an almost opiated heaviness - but, 
at the same time, everything is so painfully fragile; his face a Noh-mask, 
anemically ultra-white, his body posture ragdoll drained. Here he is, one 
of the last glam princes, and perhaps the most magnificent - his face and 
body rare and delicate works of art, not extrinsic to, or lesser than, the 
music, but forming an integral component of the overall concept. All - 
social, political, cultural - meaning seems to be drained from these 
references. When Sylvian sings ‘Red Army needs you’ on the closing 
track, ‘Cantonese Boy’, it is in the same spirit of semiotic orientalism: the 
Chinese and Japanese Empires of signs are reduced to images, exploited 
and coveted for their frission. 

By the time of Tin Drum, Japan have perfected their transition from 
New York Dolls-trash-hounds to gentlemen connoisseurs, from working 
class Beckenham youth into cosmopolitan men about town. (Or they’ve 
achieved as much as is possible: ‘Ghosts’ suggests that the transition will 
never be so successful as to eliminate anxiety: the more you’ve disguised 
your background, the more it will hurt when it is exposed.) Tin Drum’s 
superficiality is the superficiality of the (glossy) photograph, the group’s 
detachment that of the photographer. Images are decontextualised, then 

re-assembled to form an ‘Oriental’ panorama that is strangely abstract: a 
Far East as surrealist novelist Raymond Roussel might have reimagined 
it. Like Ferry, Sylvian remains Subject as well as Object: not only the 
frozen Image, but also he who assembles images, not in any 
pathological, Peeping Tom sense, but in a coolly detached way. The 
detachment, naturally, is a performance, concealing anxiety even as it 
sublimates it. The words are little labyrinths, enigmas with no possible 
solution - the appearance of enigmas, perhaps - false-fronted follies 
decorated with Chinese and Japanese motifs. 

Sylvian’s voice belongs to this masquerade. Even on ‘Ghosts’, Sylvian’s 
voice does not ask to be taken at face value. It is not a voice that reveals, 
or even pretends to reveal, it is a voice to hide behind, just like the 
make-up, the conspicuously-worn sino-signs. It’s not only the fixation on 
geography that makes Sylvian seem like a tourist, an outside observer 
even in his own ‘inner’ life. His voice seems to come entirely from his 
head, barely from his body at all. 

And after this? Japan would fall apart, while Duran Duran were 
already more than half way towards taking a lumpen version of Japan’s 
schtick into superstardom. For Sylvian, there was a pursuit of 
‘authenticity’, which was connoted by two things: the turn away from 
rhythm and the embracing of ‘real’ instruments. The wiping away of the 
cosmetics, the quest for Meaning, the discovery of a Real Self. Yet, until 
2003’s Blemish, Sylvian’s solo records seemed as if they were straining 
towards an emotional authenticity that his voice could never quite 
deliver, only now they lacked the alibi of aestheticism. 

Tin Drum was Japan’s final studio album, but it was also one of the 
last moments in English art pop. One future had quietly died, but others 
would surface. 

‘Your eyes resemble mine...’ 

A fragment of Japan’s ‘Ghosts’ washed up 14 years later, on Tricky’s first 
single, ‘Aftermath’. Here it wasn’t sampled, but cited, by Tricky’s 
mentor, fellow Bristolian Mark Stewart. In the background of the track’s 
loping-shanty rhythms, you can hear Stewart speak-sing the lines ‘just 
when I thought I was winning, just when I thought I could not be 
stopped... 4 The use of the Japan reference and the presence of Stewart - 

a major figure in Bristol postpunk since his time with The Pop Group in 
the 1970s - were already powerful clues that Tricky’s positioning as a 
‘trip-hop’ artist was reductive and misleading. Too often, the label trip- 
hop would be applied to what was in effect a black music with the 
‘blackness’ muted or excised (hip-hop without rap). The ‘trip’ in Tricky’s 
music had less to do with psychedelics and more to do with the fuggy 
indolence of marijuana. But Tricky pursued ganja inertia well beyond 
stoner lassitude into a visionary condition, in which rap’s aggression and 
braggadocio weren’t so much removed as refracted in the heat haze of a 
dreamy, hydroponic humidity. 

On the face of it, Tricky’s ra(s)p could be heard as the British answer 
to hip-hop, but, on a more subterranean level, what he was also taking 
up and renewing were strands in postpunk and art pop. Tricky counts 
postpunk acts like Blondie, The Banshees, The Cure (‘the last great pop 
band, I think’, he says) as his precursors. It’s not as simple as opposing 
this lineage to the soul, funk and dub references which were so obvious 
in Tricky’s earliest music. Postpunk and art pop had already drawn 
substantially upon funk and dub. ‘I grew up in a white ghetto,’ Tricky 
said when I interviewed him in 2008. ‘My Dad’s Jamaican, my 
grandmother is white. When I was growing up, till I was about 16, 
everything was normal. When I moved to an ethnic ghetto, I had friends 
there and my friends would say, “Why do you hang out with those 
skinhead guys, the white guys?” and my skinhead friends were like, 
“Why you hanging out with those black guys?” I couldn’t get it, I 
couldn’t understand it. I could always go to both worlds, I could go to a 
reggae club and then a white club and not even notice it because my 
family is all different colours, different shades. So at Christmas, you got 
a white person, black person, African looking person, Asian looking 
person...we didn’t notice it, my family are colour blind. But all of a 
sudden things started moving around, learning bad habits, people 
whispering to you, like, “Why you hanging around with those white 
guys?” These are kids I grew up with since five years old, the guys I 
grew up with saying “why you hanging out with those black guys?” 
Then I see The Specials on TV, these white and black guys getting 

Tricky appeared at the very moment when the reactionary pantomime 
of Britpop - a rock which had whitewashed out contemporary black 

influences - was moving towards dominance. The phony face-off 
between Blur and Oasis which preoccupied the media was a distraction 
from the real fault lines in British music culture at the time. The conflict 
that really mattered was between a music which acknowledged and 
accelerated what was new in the 90s - technology, cultural pluralism, 
genre innovations - and a music which took refuge in a monocultural 
version of Britishness: a swaggering white boy rock built almost entirely 
out of forms that were established in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a 
music designed to reassure anxious white males at a moment when all of 
the certainties they had previously counted on - in work, sexual 
relations, ethnic identity - were coming under pressure. As we now 
know, Britpop would win the struggle. Tricky would slink away to 
become the herald of a future for British music that never materialised. 
(A rapprochement of sorts between Tricky and Britpop was - thank-fully 
- missed. Blur’s Damon Albarn was supposed to guest on the album 
Tricky recorded under the name Nearly God - alongside The Specials’ 
Terry Hall, amongst many others - but the track that the pair recorded 
together was removed from the album before it was released.) 

When Maxinquaye was released in 1995, Tricky was immediately 
anointed as the voice of a mute, depoliticised generation, the wounded 
prophet who absorbed and transmitted a decade’s psychic pollution. The 
extent of this adulation can be gauged by the origin of the name Nearly 
God: a German journalist had asked him ‘what’s it like to be God? Well, 
nearly God?’ Instead of taking up his assigned role as the imp of the 
perverse in 90s mainstream pop, though, Tricky sidled off into the 
sidelines, a half-forgotten figure. So much so, that when he appeared as 
a guest at Bey once’s 2011 Glastonbury performance, it provoked a gasp 
of shock - as if, for a moment, we’d stumbled into some alternative 
reality where Tricky was where he deserved to be, a glamorous gargoyle 
on the edifice of 21st century pop. All-too-symbolically, however, 
Tricky’s microphone didn’t seem to be switched on, and he could barely 
be heard. 

‘On Maxinquaye/ Ian Penman wrote in his landmark March 1995 essay 
for The Wire magazine, ‘Tricky sounds like ghosts from another solar 
system’. The spectrality of Tricky’s music, the way it refused to step up or 
represent, the way it slurred between lucidity and inarticulacy, made for 
a sharp contrast with the multicoloured brashness of what Penman 

called ‘the Face- cover/Talkin Loud/Jazzie B nexus of groovy One World 
vibery’. What’s so significant about the version of multiculturalism that 
Tricky and Goldie proffered was its refusal of earnestness and 
worthiness. Theirs was not a music that petitioned for inclusion in any 
kind of ordinariness. Instead, it revelled in its otherworld- liness, its 
science-fictional glamour. Like art pop’s first pioneer, Bowie, it was 
about identification with the alien, where the alien stood in for the 
technologically new and the cognitively strange - and ultimately for 
forms of social relations that were as yet only faintly imaginable. Bowie 
was by no means the first to make this identification: loving the alien 
was a gesture that self-mytholo-gizing black magi - Kodwo Eshun’s 
‘sonic fictional’ canon of Lee Perry, George Clinton, Sun Ra - had made 
long before Bowie first did it. Identifying with the alien - not so much 
speaking for the alien as letting the alien speak through you - was what 
gave 20th century popular music much of its political charge. 
Identification with the alien meant the possibility of an escape from 
identity, into other subjectivities, other worlds. 

There was also identification with the android. ‘Aftermath’ includes a 
sample of dialogue from Blade Runner: ‘I’ll tell you about my mother’, 
the anti-Oedipal taunt that the replicant Leon throws at his interrogator- 
tormentor before killing him. ‘Is it merely coincidence that the Sylvian 
quote and the Blade Runner lift converge in the same song?’, Penman 

‘Ghosts’...Replicants? Electricity has made us all angels. Technology 
(from psycho-analysis to surveillance) has made us all ghosts. The 
replicant (‘YOUR EYES RESEMBLE MINE...‘) is a speaking void. The 
scary thing about ‘Aftermath’ is that it suggests that nowadays WE ALL 
ARE. Speaking voids, made up only of scraps and citations... 
contaminated by other people’s memories...adrift... 

When I met Tricky in 2008, he referred unbidden to the line from 
‘Aftermath’ that Penman picks up on here. ’My first lyric ever on a song 
was ‘your eyes resemble mine, you’ll see as no others can’. I never had 
any kids then, so what am I talking about? Who am I talking about? [My 
daughter] Maisie wasn’t born. My mother used to write poetry but in her 

time she couldn’t have done anything with that, there wasn’t any 
opportunity. It’s almost like she killed herself to give me the 
opportunity, my lyrics, I can never understand why I write as a female; I 
think I’ve got my Mum’s talent, I’m her vehicle. So I need a woman to 
sing that.’ 

Hauntology, then, telepathy, the persistence of the no longer... You 
don’t have to believe in the supernatural to recognise that the family is a 
haunted structure, an Overlook Hotel full of presentiments and uncanny 
repetitions, something that speaks ahead of us, instead of us...From the 
start - like all of us - Tricky was haunted, and the crepitational-texture 
of 21st century hauntology was already being auditioned on Tricky’s 
earliest recordings. When I first heard Burial a decade later, I would 
immediately reach for Tricky’s first album Maxinquaye as a point of 
comparison. It wasn’t only the use of vinyl crackle, so much a signature 
of both Maxinquaye and Burial, that suggested the affinity. It was also 
the prevailing mood, the way suffocating sadness and mumbling 
melancholy bled into lovelorn eroticism and dreamspeech. Both records 
feel like emotional states transformed into landscapes, but where Burial’s 
music conjures urban scenes under Blade Runner perma-drizzle, 
Maxinquaye feels as if it is taking place in a desert as delirial and 
Daliesque as the initiatory space that the characters pass through in Nic 
Roeg’s Walkabout: the land is scorched, cracked and barren, but there are 
occasional bursts of verdant lushness (on the queasily erotic ‘Abbaon Fat 
Tracks’, for instance, we could have strayed into the ruined pastoral of 
Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden). 

‘Your eyes resemble mine...’ From the very beginning, speaking in his 
dead mother’s voice, a semi-benign Norman Bates, Tricky was conscious 
of his (dis)possession by female spectres. With his predilection for 
cosmetics and cross-dressing, he looked like one of the last vestiges of 
the glam impulse in British pop: his gender ambivalence a welcome 
antidote to Britpop’s lumpen laddishness. It’s clear that gender 
indeterminacy is no pantomime mummery for him, but something that 
goes right to the core of his music. Saying that Tricky ‘writes from a 
female point of view’ fails to capture the uncanniness of what he does, 
since he also induces women to sing from what seems to be a male 
perspective. ‘I like putting women in a male role, to have the woman 
play the strength and the man be the weak. I was brought up, one of my 

uncles was in jail for 30 years and the other for 15 years. I didn’t see my 
dad, I was brought up by my grandmother and my auntie so I’ve seen 
my grandmother fight in the street. I’ve seen my auntie and my 
grandmother have fistfights, I’ve seen my grandmother grab my auntie’s 
arm and close it in the door and break her arm fighting over meat. So I 
see women as tough. They fed me, they clothed me, my grandmother 
taught me to steal, my auntie taught me to fight, she sent me to boxing 
when I was 15. If men go to war, you stand in one field, I stand in 
another, we shoot each other, but what’s the hardest is when you are at 
home and you gotta listen to kids cry and you gotta feed ‘em. That’s 
tough, I’ve seen no men around, I’ve seen my uncle go jail for seven 
years, then ten years, my other uncle; my Dad never rang. Women keep 
it together, keep the food on the table, defend us, defend the children, 
like if anyone fucked with us they would be down the school. I’ve never 
seen men do that for me, I’ve never seen men there for me like that. All I 
know is women.’ 

Gender doesn’t dissolve here into some bland unisex mush; instead it 
resolves into an unstable space in which subjectivity is continually 
sliding from male to female voice. It is an art of splitting which is also an 
art of doubling. Through the women who sing for/as him, Tricky 
becomes less than one, a split subject that can never be restored to 
wholeness. Yet their voicing of his incompleteness also makes him more 
than one, a double in search of a lost other half it will never recover. 
Either way, what Tricky unsettles - both as a vocalist and as a writer/ 
producer who coaxes singing from an Other - is the idea of the voice as 
a rock solid guarantor of presence and identity. His own weakened, 
recessed voice, all those croaks, mumbles and murmurs, has always 
suggested a presence that was barely there, something supplementary 
rather than centred. But the main - usually female - voice on his songs 
also sounds absented and abstracted. What the voices of his female 
singers - flat, drained, destitute of ordinary affective cadences - most 
resemble is the sound of a medium, a voice being spoken by something 

‘So this is the aftermath...’ It is not that Tricky possesses female 
singers; more that he induces them into sharing his trance states. The 
words that come to him from a lost female source are returned to a 
female mouth. ‘I’m already on the other side’, as Martina Topley-Bird 

sang on ‘I Be The Prophet’ from the Nearly God LP. Tricky’s upbringing 
was particularly gothic. ‘My grandmother used to keep me at home 
because my stepgrandfather used to be out working, and she used to 
watch all these black and white horror movies, vampire movies, and it 
was like growing up in a movie. She used to sit me in the middle of the 
floor, cause she lost my mum, her daughter. She’d be playing Billie 
Holiday, smoking a cigarette and would say things like “you look like 
your Mum,” watching me. I was always my Mum’s ghost. I grew up in a 
dreamlike state. One time I’ve seen a suicide off an NCP car park and the 
police took me down to see what I saw and the next day in the Evening 
Post there was my name in there. I woke up and it was on the fridge, my 
grandmother had put it on the fridge like I was famous.’ 

The one who is possessed is also dispossessed - of their own identity 
and voice. But this kind of dispossession is of course a precondition for 
the most potent writing and performance. Writers have to tune into 
other voices; performers must be capable of being taken over by outside 
forces - and Tricky can be a great live performer because of his capacity 
to work himself up into a state of head-shaking shamanic self-erasure. 
Like the occult, religion provides a symbolic repertoire which deals with 
the idea of an alien presence using the tongue, of the dead having 
influence on the living, and Tricky’s language has always been saturated 
with biblical imagery. Mcocinquaye’s purgatorial landscape was littered 
with religious signs, while Pre-Millennium Tension exhibited what seemed 
like religious mania: ‘I saw a Christian in Christiansands, a devil in 
Helsinki.’ ‘Here come the Nazarene/look good in a magazine...Mary 
Magdalene that’ll be my first sin.’ 

When I interviewed Tricky he had just released the single, ‘Council 
Estate’. Here, class spectres spoke - but not for the first time in Tricky’s 
work. Class rage could be detected smouldering in many of his tracks 
from the beginning. ‘Master your language/and until then, I’ll create my 
own,’ he warned on 1996’s ‘Christiansands’, casting himself as the 
proletarian Caliban plotting revenge on his alleged betters. He is acutely 
aware of the way in which class determines destiny. ‘Breaking into a 
house or car equals locksmiths, insurance, it’s all making money off me. 
The longer I’m in prison you’re making more money. Modern-day 
slavery: instead of slaves, they turn them into criminals.’ 

Tricky called the album from which ‘Council Estate’ came Knowle 

West, after the area of Bristol in which he grew up. ‘When I was at 
school, there was one certain teacher who said, when you go for a job, 
as soon as you put your postcode down and they know you’re from 
Knowle West, you ain’t gonna get the job. So lie, if you’re going to fill in 
your application forms, lie.’ 

‘Council Estate’ conceived of resentment as a motivating force and 
success as revenge. It wasn’t about leaving your past behind, as Sylvian 
wanted to, it is about succeeding so that your class origins can be forced 
back down the throat of those who said you couldn’t succeed. Like so 
many working class pop stars before him - including Sylvian - success 
provided vindication for Tricky and gave him access to a world which 
both attracted and appalled him. 1996’s ‘Tricky Kid’ was his take on the 
theme of class dislocation that has preoccupied British pop since at least 
as far back as The Kinks. It was the best song about a working class male 
projected out of their milieu into the pleasure gardens of the hyper¬ 
successful since The Associates’ ‘Club Country’ (‘A drive from nowhere 
leaves you in the cold...every breath you breathe belongs to someone 
there’). With its febrile, Jacob’s Ladder-like vision of leering hedonism - 
‘coke in your nose...everyone wants to be naked and famous’ - ‘Tricky 
Kid’ anticipated the way in which, in the first decade of the 21st century, 
working class ambitions would be bought off by the fool’s gold of 
celebrity culture and reality TV. ‘Now they call me superstar...,’ it 
demonically proclaimed, a line echoed in the refrain of ‘Council Estate’. 
Why is ‘superstar’ such an important word for him? ‘Because it’s such a 
stupid word in a way. What used to happen is that you make an album, 
and if your album’s successful, fame is almost part of the game. When I 
was starting off, I just wanted to make a good album, I wanted to make 
something that no one’s ever heard before - I wasn’t interested in 
anything else.’ 

No Longer the Pleasures: Joy Division 

Adapted from k-punk post , January 9, 2005 

If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the 
depressed spirit of our times. Listen to JD now, and you have the 
inescapable impression that the group were cataton-ically channelling 
our present, their future. From the start their work was overshadowed 
by a deep foreboding, a sense of a future foreclosed, all certainties 
dissolved, only growing gloom ahead. It has become increasingly clear 
that 1979-80, the years with which the group will always be identified, 
was a threshold moment - the time when a whole world (social 
democratic, Fordist, industrial) became obsolete, and the contours of a 
new world (neoliberal, consumerist, informatic) began to show 
themselves. This is of course a retrospective judgement; breaks are rarely 
experienced as such at the time. But the 70s exert a particular 
fascination now that we are locked into the new world - a world that 
Deleuze, using a word that would become associated with Joy Division, 
called the ‘Society of Control’. The 70s is the time before the switch, a 
time at once kinder and harsher than now. Forms of (social) security 
then taken for granted have long since been destroyed, but vicious 
prejudices that were then freely aired have become unacceptable. The 
conditions that allowed a group like Joy Division to exist have evapo¬ 
rated; but so has a certain grey, grim texture of everyday life in Britain, 
a country that seemed to have given up rationing only reluctantly. 

By the early 2000s, the 70s was long enough ago to have become a 
period setting for drama, and Joy Division were part of the scenery. This 
was how they featured in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People 
(2002). The group were little more than a cameo here, the first chapter 
in the story of Factory records and its buffoon-genius impresario Tony 
Wilson. Joy Division assumed centre stage in Anton Corbijn’s Control 
(2007), but the film didn’t really connect. For those who knew the story, 
it was a familiar trip; for those not already initiated, however, the film 

didn’t do enough to convey the group’s sorcerous power. We were taken 
through the story, but never drawn into the maelstrom, never made to 
feel why any of it mattered. Perhaps this was inevitable. Rock depends 
crucially on a particular body and a particular voice and the mysterious 
relationship between the two. Control could never make good the loss of 
Ian Curtis’s voice and body, and so ended up as arthouse karaoke 
naturalism; the actors could simulate the chords, could ape Curtis’s 
moves, but they couldn’t forge the vortical charisma, couldn’t muster the 
unwitting necromantic art that transformed the simple musical 
structures into a ferocious expressionism, a portal to the outside. For that 
you need the footage of the group performing, the sound of the records. 
Which is why, of the three films featuring the group, Grant Gee’s 2007 
documentary, Joy Division, patched together from super-8 fragments, TV 
appearances, new interviews and old images of postwar Manchester, was 
most effective at transporting us back to those disappeared times. Gee’s 
film begins with an epigraph from Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid 
Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity: ‘To be modern is to find 
ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, 
growth, transformation of ourselves and the world - and, at the same 
time that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, 
everything we are.’ Where Control tried to conjure the presence of the 
group, but left us only with a tracing, an outline, Joy Division is 
organised around a vivid sense of loss. It is selfconsciously a study of a 
time and a place, both of which are now gone. Joy Division is a roll call 
of disappeared places and people - so many dead, already: not only 
Curtis, but also the group’s manager Rob Gretton, their producer Martin 
Hannett and of course Tony Wilson. The film’s coup, its most electric 
moment, the sound of a dead man wandering in the land of the dead: a 
scratchy old cassette recording of Ian Curtis being hypnotised into ‘a past 
life regression’. I travelled far and wide through many different times. A 
slow, slurred voice channelling something cold and remote. ‘How old are 
you?’ ‘28’, an exchange made all the more chilling because we know that 
Curtis would die at the age of 23. 

Asylums with doors open wide 

I didn’t hear Joy Division until 1982, so, for me, Curtis was always- 

already dead. When I first heard them, aged 14, it was like that moment 
in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness when Sutter Cane forces 
John Trent to read the novel, the hyper-fiction, in which he is already 
immersed: my whole future life, intensely compacted into those sound 
images - Ballard, Burroughs, dub, disco, Gothic, antidepressants, psych 
wards, overdoses, slashed wrists. Way too much stim to even begin to 
assimilate. Even they didn’t understand what they were doing. How on 
earth could I, then? 

New Order, more than anyone else, were in flight from the mausoleum 
edifice of Joy Division, and they had finally achieved severance by 1990. 
The England world cup song, cavorting around with beery, leery Keith 
Allen, a man who more than any other personifies the quotidian 
masculinism of overground Brit bloke culture in the late 80s and 90s, 
was a consummate act of desublimation. This, in the end, was what 
Kodwo Eshun called the ‘price of escaping the anxiety of influence (the 
influence of themselves)’. On Movement the group were still in post- 
traumatic stress, frozen into a barely communicative trance (‘The noise 
that surrounds me/ so loud in my head...’) 

It was clear, in the best interviews the band ever gave - to Jon Savage, 
a decade and a half after Curtis’s death - that they had no idea what 
they were doing, and no desire to learn. Of Curtis’ disturbing-compelling 
hyper-charged stage trance spasms and of his disturbing-compelling 
catatonic downer words, they said nothing and asked nothing, for fear of 
destroying the magic. They were unwitting necromancers who had 
stumbled on a formula for channelling voices, apprentices without a 
sorcerer. They saw themselves as mindless golems animated by Curtis’ 
vision(s). (Thus, when he died, they said that they felt they had lost their 

Above all - and even if only because of audience reception - they 
were more than a pop group, more than entertainment, that much is 
obvious. We know all the words as if we wrote them ourselves, we 
followed stray hints in the lyrics out to all sorts of darker chambers, and 
listening to the albums now is like putting on a comfortable and familiar 
set of clothes.... But who is this ‘we’? Well, it might have been the last 
‘we’ that a whole generation of not-quite-men could feel a part of. There 
was an odd universality available to Joy Division’s devotees (provided 
you were male of course). 

Provided you were male of course ... The Joy Division religion was, self¬ 
consciously, a boys’ thing. Deborah Curtis: ‘Whether it was intentional or 
not, the wives and girlfriends had gradually been banished from all but 
the most local of gigs and a curious male bonding had taken place. The 
boys seemed to derive their fun from each other.’ (Deborah Curtis, 
Touching from a Distance, 77) No girls allowed... 

As Curtis’s wife, Deborah was barred from rock’s pleasure garden, and 
could not pass into the cult of death that lay beyond the pleasure 
principle. She was just left to clear up the mess. 

If Joy Division were very much a boys’ group, their signature song, 
‘She’s Lost Control’ saw Ian Curtis abjecting his own disease, the ‘holy 
sickness’ of epilepsy, onto a female Other. Freud includes epileptic fits - 
along, incidentally, with a body in the grip of sexual passion - as 
examples of the unheimlich, the unhomely, the strangely familiar. Here 
the organic is slaved to the mechanical rhythms of the inorganic; the 
inanimate calls the tune, as it always does with Joy Division. ‘She’s Lost 
Control’ is one of rock’s most explicit encounters with the mineral lure of 
the inanimate. Joy Division’s icy-spined undeath disco sounds like it has 
been recorded inside the damaged synaptic pathways of a brain of 
someone undergoing a seizure, Curtis’ sepulchral, anhedonic vocals sent 
back to him - as if they were the voice of an Other, or Others - in long, 
leering expressionistic echoes that linger like acrid acid fog. ‘She’s Lost 
Control’ traverses Poe-like cataleptic black holes in subjectivity, takes 
flatline voyages into the land of the dead and back to confront the ‘edge 
of no escape’, seeing in seizures little deaths (petil mals as petit morts) 
which offer terrifying but exhilarating releases from identity, more 
powerful than any orgasm. 

In this colony 

Try to imagine England in 1979 now... 

Pre-VCR, pre-PC, pre-C4. Telephones far from ubiquitous (we didn’t 
have one till around 1980, I think). The postwar consensus 
disintegrating on black and white TV. 

More than anyone else, Joy Division turned this dourness into a 
uniform that self-consciously signified absolute authenticity; the 
deliberately functional formality of their clothes seceding from punk’s 

tribalised anti-Glamour, ‘depressives dressing for the Depression’ 
(Deborah Curtis). It wasn’t for nothing that they were called Warsaw 
when they started out. But it was in this Eastern bloc of the mind, in this 
slough of despond, that you could find working class kids who wrote 
songs steeped in Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Burroughs, Ballard, kids 
who, without even thinking about it, were rigorous modernists who 
would have disdained repeating themselves, never mind disinterring and 
aping what had been done 20, 30 years ago (the 60s was a fading Pathe 
newsreel in 1979). 

Back in ‘79, Art Rock still had a relationship to the sonic 
experimentation of the Black Atlantic. Unthinkable now, but White Pop 
then was no stranger to the cutting edge, so a genuine trade was 
possible. Joy Division provided the Black Atlantic with some sonic 
fictions it could re-deploy - listen to Grace Jones’s extraordinary cover 
of ‘She’s Lost Control’, or Sleazy D’s ‘I’ve Lost Control’, or even to Kanye 
West’s 808s and Heartbreak (with its sleeve references to Saville’s ‘Blue 
Monday’ cover design, and its echoes of Atmosphere and ‘In A Lonely 
Place’). For all that, Joy Division’s relationship to black pop was much 
more occluded than that of some of their peers. Postpunk’s break from 
lumpen punk R and R consisted in large part in an ostentatiously flagged 
return-reclaiming of Black Pop: funk and dub especially. There was none 
of that, on the surface at least, with Joy Division. 

But a group like PiL’s take on dub, now, sounds a little laborious, a 
little literal, whereas, Joy Division, like The Fall, came off as a white 
anglo equivalent of dub. Both Joy Division and The Fall were ‘black’ in 
the priorities and economies of their sound: bass-heavy and rhythm- 
driven. This was dub not as a form, but a methodology, a legitimation 
for conceiving of sound-production as abstract engineering. But Joy 
Division also had a relationship to another super-synthetic, artily 
artificial ‘black’ sound: disco. Again, it was they, better than PiL, who 
delivered the ‘Death Disco’ beat. As Jon Savage loves to point out, the 
swarming syn-drums on ‘Insight’ seem to be borrowed from disco 
records like Amy Stewart’s ‘Knock on Wood’. 

The role in all this of Martin Hannett, a producer who needs to be 
counted with the very greatest in pop, cannot be underestimated. It is 
Hannett, alongside Peter Saville, the group’s sleeve designer, who 
ensured that Joy Division were more Art than Rock. The damp mist of 

insinuating uneasy listening Sound FX with which Hannett cloaked the 
mix, together with Saville’s depersonalising designs, meant that the 
group could be approached, not as an aggregation of individual 
expressive subjects, but as a conceptual consistency. It was Hannett and 
Saville who transmuted the stroppy neuromantics of Warsaw into 

Day in/ Day out 

Joy Division connected not just because of what they were, but when 
they were. Mrs Thatcher just arrived, the long grey winter of 
Reagonomics on the way, the Cold War still feeding our unconscious 
with a lifetime’s worth of retina-melting nightmares. 

JD were the sound of British culture’s speed comedown, a long slow 
screaming neural shutdown. Since 1956, when Eden took amphetamines 
throughout the Suez crisis, through the Pop of the 60s, which had been 
kicked off by the Beatles going through the wall on uppers in Hamburg, 
through punk, which consumed speed like there was no tomorrow, 
Britain had been, in every sense, speeding. Speed is a connectivity drug, 
a drug that made sense of a world in which electronic connections were 
madly proliferating. But the comedown is vicious. 

Massive serotonin depletion. 

Energy crash. 

Turn on your TV. 

Turn down your pulse. 

Turn away from it all. 

It’s all getting 

Too much 

Melancholia was Curtis’ art form, just as psychosis was Mark E Smith’s. 
Nothing could have been more fitting than that Unknown Pleasures began 
with a track called ‘Disorder’, for the key to Joy Division was the 
Ballardian spinal landscape, the connexus linking individual 
psychopathology with social anomie. The two meanings of breakdown, 
the two meanings of Depression. That was how Sumner saw it, anyhow. 
As he explained to Savage, ‘There was a huge sense of community where 
we lived. I remember the summer holidays when I was a kid: we would 
stay up late and play in the street, and 12 o’clock at night there would 
be old ladies, talking to each other. I guess what happened in the ‘60s 
was that the council decided that it wasn’t very healthy, and something 
had to go, and unfortunately it was my neighbourhood that went. We 
were moved over the river to a towerblock. At the time I thought it was 
fantastic; now of course I realise it was an absolute disaster. I’d had a 
number of other breaks in my life. So when people say about the 
darkness in Joy Division’s music, by age of 22, I’d had quite a lot of loss 
in my life. The place where I used to live, where I had my happiest 
memories, all of that had gone. All that was left was a chemical factory. 
I realised then that I could never go back to that happiness. So there’s 
this void.’ 

Dead end lives at the end of the 70s. There were Joy Division, Curtis 
doing what most working class men still did, early marriage and a kid... 

Feel it closing in 

Sumner again: ‘When I left school and got a job, real life came as a 
terrible shock. My first job was at Salford town hall sticking down 
envelopes, sending rates out. I was chained in this horrible office: every 
day, every week, every year, with maybe three weeks holiday a year. 
The horror enveloped me. So the music of Joy Division was about the 
death of optimism, of youth.’ 

A requiem for doomed youth culture. ‘Here are the young men/ the 
weight on their shoulders,’ went the famous lines from ‘Decades’, on 
Closer. The titles ‘New Dawn Fades’ and Unknown Pleasures could 
themselves be referring to the betrayed promises of youth culture. Yet 
what is remarkable about Joy Division is their total acquiescence in this 
failure, the way in which, from the start, they set up an Antarctic camp 

beyond the pleasure principle. 

Set the controls for the heart of the black sun 

What impressed and perturbed about JD was the fixatedness of their 
negativity. Unremitting wasn’t the word. Yes, Lou Reed and Iggy and 
Morrison and Jagger had dabbled in nihilism - but even with Iggy and 
Reed that had been ameliorated by the odd moment of exhilaration, or 
at least there had been some explanation for their misery (sexual 
frustration, drugs). What separated Joy Division from any of their 
predecessors, even the bleakest, was the lack of any apparent object- 
cause for their melancholia. (That’s what made it melancholia rather 
than melancholy, which has always been an acceptable, subtly sublime, 
delectation for men to relish.) From its very beginnings, (Robert 
Johnson, Sinatra) 20th-century Pop has been more to do with male (and 
female) sadness than elation. Yet, in the case of both the bluesman and 
the crooner, there is, at least ostensibly, a reason for the sorrow. Because 
Joy Division’s bleakness was without any specific cause, they crossed the 
line from the blue of sadness into the black of depression, passing into 
the ‘desert and wastelands’ where nothing brings either joy or sorrow. 
Zero affect. 

No heat in Joy Division’s loins. They surveyed ‘the troubles and the 
evils of this world’ with the uncanny detachment of the neurasthenic. 
Curtis sang ‘I’ve lost the will to want more’ on ‘Insight’ but there was no 
sense that there had been any such will in the first place. Give their 
earliest songs a casual listen and you could easily mistake their tone for 
the curled lip of spiky punk outrage, but, already, it is as if Curtis is not 
railing against injustice or corruption so much as marshalling them as 
evidence for a thesis that was, even then, firmly established in his mind. 
Depression is, after all and above all, a theory about the world, about 
life. The stupidity and venality of politicians (‘Leaders of Men’), the 
idiocy and cruelty of war (‘Walked in Line’) are pointed to as exhibits in 
a case against the world, against life, that is so overwhelming, so 
general, that to appeal to any particular instance seems superfluous. In 
any case, Curtis expects no more of himself than he does of others, he 
knows he cannot condemn from a moral high ground: he ‘let them use 
you/ for their own ends’ (‘Shadowplay’), he’ll let you take his place in a 

showdown (‘Heart and Soul’). 

That is why Joy Division can be a very dangerous drug for young men. 
They seem to be presenting The Truth (they present themselves as doing 
so). Their subject, after all, is depression. Not sadness or frustration, 
rock’s standard downer states, but depression: depression, whose 
difference from mere sadness consists in its claim to have uncovered The 
(final, unvarnished) Truth about life and desire. 

The depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so 
that his own frozen inner life - or inner death - overwhelms everything; 
at the same time, he experiences himself as evacuated, totally denuded, 
a shell: there is nothing except the inside, but the inside is empty. For 
the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, 
precisely, a mode of playacting, a series of pantomime gestures (‘a circus 
complete with all fools’), which they are both no longer capable of 
performing and which they no longer wish to perform - there’s no point, 
everything is a sham. 

Depression is not sadness, not even a state of mind, it is a 
(neuro)philosophical (dis)position. Beyond Pop’s bipolar oscillation 
between evanescent thrill and frustrated hedonism, beyond Jagger’s 
Miltonian Mephistopheleanism, beyond Iggy’s negated carny, beyond 
Roxy’s lounge lizard reptilian melancholy, beyond the pleasure principle 
altogether, Joy Division were the most Schopenhauerian of rock groups, 
so much so that they barely belonged to rock at all. Since they had so 
thoroughly stripped out rock’s libidinal motor - it would be better to say 
that they were, libidinally as well as sonically, anti-rock. Or perhaps, as 
they thought, they were the truth of rock, rock divested of all illusions. 
(The depressive is always confident of one thing: that he is without 
illusions.) What makes Joy Division so Schopenhauerian is the 
disjunction between Curtis’s detachment and the urgency of the music, 
its implacable drive standing in for the dumb insatiability of the life- 
Will, the Beckettian ‘I must go on’ not experienced by the depressive as 
some redemptive positivity, but as the ultimate horror, the life-Will 
paradoxically assuming all the loathsome properties of the undead 
(whatever you do, you can’t extinguish it, it keeps coming back). 

Accept like a curse an unlucky deal 

JD followed Schopenhauer through the curtain of Maya, went outside 
Burroughs’ Garden of Delights, and dared to examine the hideous 
machineries that produce the world-as-appearance. What did they see 
there? Only what all depressives, all mystics, always see: the obscene 
undead twitching of the Will as it seeks to maintain the illusion that this 
object, the one it is fixated upon NOW, this one, will satisfy it in a way 
that all other objects thus far have failed to. Joy Division, with an 
ancient wisdom (‘Ian sounded old, as if he had lived a lifetime in his 
youth’ - Deborah Curtis), a wisdom that seems pre-mammalian, pre- 
multicellular life, pre-organic, saw through all those reproducer ruses. 
This is the ‘Insight’ that stopped fear in Curtis, the calming despair that 
subdued any will to want more. JD saw life as the Poe of ‘The Conqueror 
Worm’ had seen it, as Ligotti sees it: an automated marionette dance, 
which ‘Through a circle that ever returneth in/ To the self-same spot’, an 
ultra-determined chain of events that goes through its motions with 
remorseless inevitability. You watch the pre-scripted film as if from 
outside, condemned to watch the reels as they come to a close, brutally 
taking their time. 

A student of mine once wrote in an essay that they sympathise with 
Schopenhauer when their football team loses. But the true 
Schopenhauerian moments are those in which you achieve your goals, 
perhaps realise your long-cherished heart’s desire - and feel cheated, 
empty, no, more - or is it less? - than empty, voided. Joy Division 
always sounded as if they had experienced one too many of those 
desolating voidings, so that they could no longer be lured back onto the 
merry-go-round. They knew that satiation wasn’t succeeded by tristesse, 
it was itself, immediately, tristesse. Satiation is the point at which you 
must face the existential revelation that you didn’t want really want 
what you seemed so desperate to have, that your most urgent desires are 
only a filthy vitalist trick to keep the show on the road. If you ‘can’t 
replace the fear or the thrill of the chase’, why stir yourself to pursue yet 
another empty kill? Why carry on with the charade? 

Depressive ontology is dangerously seductive because, as the zombie 
twin of a certain philosophical wisdom, it is half true. As the depressive 
withdraws from the vacant confections of the lifeworld, he unwittingly 
finds himself in concordance with the human condition so painstakingly 
diagrammed by a philosopher like Spinoza: he sees himself as a serial 

consumer of empty simulations, a junky hooked on every kind of 
deadening high, a meat puppet of the passions. The depressive cannot 
even lay claim to the comforts that a paranoiac can enjoy, since he 
cannot believe that the strings are being pulled by any one. No flow, no 
connectivity in the depressive’s nervous system. ‘Watch from the wings 
as the scenes were replaying’, go the fatalistic lines in ‘Decades’, and 
Curtis wrote with a depressive’s iron certainty about life as some pre¬ 
scripted film. His voice - from the very start terrifying in its fatalism, in 
its acceptance of the worst - sounds like the voice of man who is already 
dead, or who has entered an appalling state of suspended animation, 
death-within-life. It sounds preternaturally ancient, a voice that cannot 
be sourced back to any living being, still less to a young man barely in 
his twenties. 

A loaded gun won’t set you free - so you say 

‘A loaded gun won’t set you free,’ Curtis sang on ‘New Dawn Fades’ from 
Unknown Pleasures, but he didn’t sound convinced. ‘After pondering over 
the words to ‘New Dawn Fades’,’ Deborah Curtis wrote, ‘I broached the 
subject with Ian, trying to make him confirm that they were only lyrics 
and bore no resemblance to his true feelings. It was a one-sided 
conversation. He refused to confirm or deny any of the points raised and 
he walked out of the house. I was left questioning myself instead, but did 
not feel close enough to anyone else to voice my fears. Would he really 
have married me knowing that he still intended to kill himself in his 
early twenties? Why father a child when you have no intention of being 
there to see it grow up? Had I been so oblivious to his unhappiness that 
he had been forced to write about it?’ (Touching from a Distance: Ian 
Curtis and Joy Division, Faber&Faber, 1995, p85) The male lust for death 
had always been a subtext in rock, but before Joy Division it had been 
smuggled into rock under libidinous pretexts, a black dog in wolf’s 
clothing - Thanatos cloaked as Eros - or else it had worn pantomime 
panstick. Suicide was a guarantee of authenticity, the most convincing of 
signs that you were 4 Real. Suicide has the power to transfigure life, 
with all its quotidian mess, its conflicts, its ambivalences, its 
disappointments, its unfinished business, its ‘waste and fever and heat’ - 
into a cold myth, as solid, seamless and permanent as the ‘marble and 

stone’ that Peter Saville would simulate on the record sleeves and Curtis 
would caress in the lyrics to ‘In a Lonely Place’. (‘In a Lonely Place’ was 
Curtis’ song, but it was recorded by a New Order in a zombie state of 
post-traumatic disorder after Curtis’ death. It sounds like Curtis is an 
interloper at his own funeral, mourning his own death: ‘how I wish you 
were here with me now’.) 

The great debates over Joy Division - were they fallen angels or 
ordinary blokes? Were they Fascists? Was Curtis’ suicide inevitable or 
preventable? - all turn on the relationship between Art and Life. We 
should resist the temptation to be Lorelei-lured by either the Aesthete- 
Romantics (in other words, us, as we were) or the lumpen empiricists. 
The Aesthetes want the world promised by the sleeves and the sound, a 
pristine black and white realm unsullied by the grubby compromises and 
embarrassments of the everyday. The empiricists insist on just the 
opposite: on rooting the songs back in the quotidian at its least elevated 
and, most importantly, at its least serious. Tan was a laugh, the band 
were young lads who liked to get pissed, it was all a bit of fun that got 
out of hand...’ It’s important to hold onto both of these Joy Divisions - 
the Joy Division of Pure Art, and the Joy Division who were ‘just a laff’ - 
at once. For if the truth of Joy Division is that they were Lads, then Joy 
Division must also be the truth of Laddism. And so it would appear: 
beneath all the red-nosed downer-fuelled jollity of the past two decades, 
mental illness has increased some 70% amongst adolescents. Suicide 
remains one of the most common sources of death for young males. 

‘I crept into my parents’ house without waking anyone and was asleep 
within seconds of my head touching the pillow. The next sound I heard 
was “This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, 
the end. I’ll never look into your eyes again...” Surprised at hearing the 
Doors’ ‘The End’, I struggled to rouse myself. Even as I slept I knew it 
was an unlikely song for Radio One on a Sunday morning. But there was 
no radio - it was all a dream.’ (Touching From a Distance, p!32) 

Smiley’s Game: Tinker , Tailor , Soldier , Spy 

Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2, (2011) 

What is the allure of George Smiley? Why does Smiley beguile even left- 
wing viewers who, on the face of it, might be expected to see him as at 
one point in John le Carre’s 1974 novel he describes himself: ‘the very 
archetype of a flabby Western liberal’? The enigma of Smiley’s appeal is 
one of many spectres that haunts Tomas Alfredson’s movie adaptation of 
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The ghost that most insistently refuses to be 
exorcised is the 1979 BBC TV version, rightly remembered as one of the 
greatest ever British television series. Re-adapting a novel after so 
accomplished a version is risky, especially when you have a mere two 
hours to play with, as opposed to the series’ more unhurried five. 

Pace - and pacing, as in moving around restively while waiting - were 
central to the coiling tension of the TV series, which caught the crab-like 
convolutions and slowly interlocking rhythms of le Carre’s narrative 
exceptionally well. The limitations of television production actually 
benefited the sense of expansiveness. Sets and action were minimal; the 
drama was often about faces, and about Alec Guinness’s face in 
particular, which could suggest a lifetime of regret with the slightest 
wince. Guinness’s performance was a masterclass in concision and 
nuance - not words one would always associate with Gary Oldman, cast 
(emphatically against type) as Smiley in the new Tinker Tailor. 

When a novel creates as rich a mythworld as le Carre’s does, no single 
adaptation will ever completely exhaust it. There is always the 
possibility of uncovering hitherto underexplored angles and for those of 
us who are fans of the novel, a strong new version would have had the 
benefit of liberating the book (and Smiley) from the Guinness portrayal - 
a prospect that might explain some of le Carre’s enthusiasm for the film. 
Le Carre has said he felt that Guinness took Smiley from him, making 
him unable to write the character anymore. When it was announced that 
this was Alfredson’s next directing project after the success of Let the 

Right One In (2008), hopes for something special were justifiably high. 
His brilliant reworking of vampire fiction had a sense of melancholy, 
violent lives lived in secret that could have carried over most effectively 
to the closed-world intrigues of British spying. It is thus all the more 
disappointing that this new Tinker Tailor fails to compellingly reimagine 
the story, and central to its failure is the film’s inability to make Smiley 

In the novel le Carre reckoned with the sensational exposures that had 
both traumatised and titillated British society in the 1960s when Soviet 
double agents Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby were 
revealed to be operating right at the heart of the intelligence 
establishment. The book begins when Smiley is called out of retirement 
to search for a deep-cover mole - it was in fact le Carre who popularised 
this term - in the Secret Intelligence Service (otherwise known as MI6). 
Tinker Tailor follows Smiley’s circuitous pursuit and exposure of the 
traitor, who is ultimately revealed to be Smiley’s friend and rival Bill 
Haydon - one of many men to have affairs with Smiley’s semi-estranged 
wife, Ann. The narrative is suffused with what Paul Gilroy has called 
‘postcolonial melancholia’. Smiley, Haydon, and their contemporaries - 
notably Jim Prideaux, the former head of the ‘scalphunters’ section, shot 
in the bungled operation that ultimately leads to the mole being 
uncovered, and Connie Sachs, the head of intelligence, dismissed when 
she comes uncomfortably close to the truth - have watched all the 
expectations born of imperial privilege slowly disappearing. ‘Trained to 
Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone, all taken away,’ Sachs 
laments (Pan Books, 1979, 102). 

Postcolonial melancholia is fed more by hostility towards the US than 
it is by fear of the Soviets - Haydon and Smiley’s boss, the irascible 
Control, are united in their loathing of Americans. When Control is 
maneuvered out of his position by the ambitious (and very pro-US) 
Percy Alleline, this seems to consolidate the sense of irreversible decline 
which hangs over the novel. England’s glory lies in the past; the future is 
American. In the novel and its sequels, it is clear that Smiley’s victory is 
temporary; his world is on the brink of disappearing. 

Smiley brings to mind English archetypes both ancient and modern. 
What is the perpetually cuckolded Smiley, returning to save his ailing 
kingdom, if not a Cold War King Arthur? Yet this is Arthur done in the 

style of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, whose famous self-characterization as ‘an 
attendant lord’ applies all too acutely to le Carre’s character as well: 
‘Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full 
of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous - 
/ Almost, at times, the Fool’ (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ The 
Complete Poems and Plays ofT. S. Eliot, Faber and Faber, 1969, 16). 

While in some respects a pathologically self-blinding figure, Smiley 
shares some of Prufrock’s self-consciousness; when, in a scene that is 
powerfully played out in both the BBC and the film version, Smiley 
recalls his one face-to-face encounter with his counterpart, the Soviet 
spy chief Karla, he calls himself a ‘fool.’ Crucially, however, he adds that 
he would rather be his kind of fool than Karla’s. 

When Smiley recounts the meeting with Karla to his younger protege 
Peter Guillam, he reproaches himself for having talked too much on that 
memorable occasion in an Indian jail cell. Karla wins the encounter by 
never speaking, by transforming himself into the blank screen that 
Smiley cannot on this occasion become - which makes it all the easier 
for Smiley to fall into the trap of projecting his own anxieties and 
preoccupations onto the impassive Karla. In the novel, Smiley affects to 
disdain the psychoanalytic language of ‘projection’ but, tellingly, he 
cannot resist using these terms to describe himself; appropriately, for in 
the normal run of things Smiley’s art consists in cultivating a particular 
kind of silence - not the mere absence of chatter, but the authoritative, 
probing silence of the psychoanalyst. The face can’t give anything away, 
yet at the same time it has to invite confidence. Those who don’t want to 
talk must be drawn into confiding. And isn’t that a large part of Smiley’s 
appeal to those of us from a more adolescent, more compulsively 
loquacious time: his grownup capacity to engender respect, and to 
quietly solicit our need for his approval? Speaking after a London critics’ 
screening of Tinker Tailor in September, Oldman said that, by contrast 
with the Guinness version, no-one would want to hug his Smiley. Yet the 
suggestion that we would want to hug Guinness’s Smiley is absurd. 
Surely what we find ourselves craving from Smiley is a word, a gesture, 
the merest hint of approbation. But it is a mistake to see the avuncular 
seductions of Guinness’s performance as if they were in opposition to the 
ruthlessness which Oldman emphasises in his rendition of Smiley, for 
Smiley’s merciless, unblinking hunting down of his prey depends upon 

this very capacity to draw people out. 

Oldman’s reading of Smiley’s blankness is far less sophisticated than 
Guinness’s. Le Carre’s Smiley is famously corpulent; Oldman’s is angular, 
stiff, dyspeptic. We can’t imagine ever wanting to confide in him. 
Oldman’s Smiley is simply an inexpressive mask: forbidding, impassive, 
unyielding. It is as if Oldman is giving us his shallow reading of his 
grandparents’ generation: aloof, distanced, bottled-up. They kept it all 
inside; they didn’t know how to have a good time. For Oldman, Smiley’s 
restraint plays as repression and a certain malicious self-satis-faction - 
his silence is a simple lack of demonstrativeness, or a merely inverted 

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today, le Carre himself identified Oldman’s 
performance of repression as one of the highlights of this new version. 
‘You couldn’t really imagine Alec [Guinness] having a sex life,’ he said. 
‘You couldn’t imagine a kiss on the screen with Alec, not one that you 
believed in. Whereas Oldman has quite obviously a male sexuality that 
he represses, like all his other feelings, in this story. Oldman is a Smiley 
waiting patiently to explode. I think the air of frustration, of solitude 
that he is able to convey is something that really does take me back to a 
novel I wrote 37 years ago.’ Sadly, this remark suggests less a new way 
of seeing Smiley than a certain coarsening of understanding brought 
about, no doubt, by the dissemination of a therapeutic wisdom which 
insists that the truth of a character is to be found in their (narrowly 
defined) sexuality. 

To say that Smiley is waiting patiently to explode is a very curious 
take on a character defined rather by a lack of heat. When Oldman 
shouts at Haydon ‘what are you then, Bill?’ at the climax of the film, this 
is an abandonment of emotional decorum quite out of keeping with 
Smiley’s character, for whom the English ruling-class habit of 
transposing aggression into the chill of superficially polite discourse 
comes as second nature. Anger is one of the emotions that the Smiley of 
the novel feels at the moment of Haydon’s exposure, yet it is not the 
dominant one: Smiley 

saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, 

brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose vision and vanities all 

were fixed, like Percy’s, upon the world’s game; for whom the reality 
was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the 
water. Thus Smiley felt not only disgust; but, despite all that the 
moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions 
he was supposed to be protecting’ (297). 

Thus, the tone of triumphalism with which the film ends - Smiley 
gloriously restored to his place of honour in MI6 - strikes another false 

The Smiley in Alfredson’s film is a figure who is far less queer than the 
Smiley of the novel or the television series. Homosexual desire is 
widespread in Tinker Tailor - most notably in Prideaux’s betrayed love 
for the flamboyantly polysexual Haydon - but there is no suggestion that 
Smiley shared these passions. The Smiley of novel and series is queer in 
the more radical sense that a ‘normal’ sexuality cannot be assigned to 
him. Smiley’s is not a fluid, indeterminate sexuality like, say, that of 
Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. His perversity is renunciation itself. At 
the preview, Oldman referred approvingly to le Carre’s comments on 
Guinness’s lack of sexuality; but he also characterised Smiley as 
masochistic (repeatedly subjecting himself to adulterous humiliations) 
and sadistic (the way he pursues his prey goes far beyond professional 
duty). Yet the idea that Smiley is sadomasochistic quite clearly 
contradicts the idea that he is repressed. For sadomasochism entails 
enjoyment, not repression. Far from being repressed, it’s clear that 
Smiley is driven - driven by something which will not allow him to ever 
recline into happy retirement any more than he could settle into the 
pleasures of conjugal life, were they available to him. 

From his earliest appearances in le Carre’s fiction - in the novels Call 
for the Dead and A Murder of Quality - Smiley is on the edge of things. In 
most of the novels which feature Smiley, he rarely appears as officially a 
member of MI6. He is called out of retirement, or pretending to be 
retired; and when, after Tinker Tailor, he is not only restored to the 
organization but made chief, it is in a temporary caretaker capacity. One 
of the paradoxes of Smiley’s character is that he seems to stand for the 
solidity - and stolidity - ascribed to a certain model of Englishness, yet 
he is himself an outsider, an interloper, a voyeur. This is the spy’s 

vocation, and le Carre repeatedly insists on it, nowhere more 
passionately than in the bitter outburst of the agent Alec Leamas at the 
end of The Spy who Came in from the Cold, so memorably performed by 
Richard Burton in the 1965 film adaptation. 

‘What do you think spies are, moral philosophers measuring 
everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not, 
they’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me,’ Burton’s Leamas 
tells his lover, Liz, after it has been revealed that they were pawns in a 
complex plot hatched by Control and Smiley. It is the beyond-good-and- 
evil agent, the one who acts without performing complex moral 
calculations, the one who cannot belong to the ‘normal’ world, who 
allows ordinary folk to sleep easily. Yet duty is only the pretext; there is 
also the matter of the deep libidinal lure of this no-man’s-land for 
outsiders like Leamas and Smiley. Like writers, they listen and observe; 
like actors, they play parts. 

But, for spies, there are no limits to these roles; one cannot simply step 
out of them and return to the warm, because everything - including 
inner life itself, all its wounds and private shames - starts to feel like 
cover, a series of props. There is a revelatory passage towards the end of 
the second Smiley novel, A Murder of Quality, first published in 1962. At 
the end of the novel - a strange whodunit thriller - Smiley confronts the 
murderer, but, as in the later confrontation with Karla, he ends up 
talking about himself: 

And there are some of us - aren’t there? - who are nothing, who are 
so labile that we astound ourselves; we’re the chameleons. I read a 
story once about a poet who bathed himself in cold fountains so that 
he could recognise his own existence in the contrast of it...The people 
like that, they can’t feel anything inside them: no pleasure or pain, no 
love or hate...They have to feel that cold water. Without it, they’re 
nothing. The world sees them as showmen, fantasists, liars, as 
sensualists perhaps, not for what they are: the living dead (Coronet, 
1994, 174). 

There is a clear implication in this slide from first person (‘some of us’) 
to third person (‘people like that’): the Cold Warrior Smiley is himself 

one of the ‘living dead.’ In psychoanalytic terms, Smiley is less a 
‘sadomasochist’ than an obsessional neurotic. (Lacan in fact argues that 
the question posed by the obsessional is ‘am I alive or am I dead?’) At 
the end of Smiley’s People, when Smiley has defeated Karla and has the 
possibility of winning Ann back, Smiley is very far from being elated. 
There is little sense of this in Oldman’s Smiley: his ‘sadomasochism’ is 
too crude to approximate the baroque mechanisms of self-decep-tions 
and self-torturings which govern Smiley’s psyche. Yet another false note 
is struck in Alfredson’s film when Smiley sees Ann being embraced by 
Haydon at the MI6 Christmas party; he throws himself against the wall 
in a spasm of agony. In other respects, the party scene adds something 
which wasn’t there in the BBC version, a sense of the camaraderie within 
the department, but it is hard to imagine Smiley engaging in so public 
and so spontaneous display of emotion. More troublingly, to suggest that 
Smiley would straightforwardly feel pain when confronted with Ann’s 
infidelities is to betray the very idea that he is masochistic. When 
confronted about Ann in the novel and TV adaptation, Smiley’s preferred 
pose is one of weary resig-nation; but this conceals the secret satisfaction 
that he experiences in Ann playing her assigned role as impossible 
object. But where the masochist would organise his enjoyment around 
this impossible object, for Smiley, the function of Ann’s unattainability is 
to keep her at a safe distance. His enjoyment is not organised around 
Ann - or sexuality - at all, and when she is safely unattainable she 
cannot trouble him. 

Unlike in the TV series, we never see the faces of either Ann or Karla, 
Smiley’s other Other, in the film. This rightly suggests that both figures 
are at least partially absent for Smiley, filled in with his fantasies. But 
what’s missing is an account of the way that Smiley fills in these fantasy 
screens, and any sense of discrepancy between the fantasy figures that 
Smiley projects and their real-life counterparts. In the film, Smiley 
cannot remember what Karla looked like; in the novel he gives a 
detailed description of his adversary. Defined externally by his struggle 
against Karla, Smiley’s internal struggle consists of his necessarily 
thwarted attempts to refuse any identification with his Soviet 
counterpart. Smiley’s attempts to distance himself from the ‘fanatic’ 
Karla, his attempts to position himself outside politics itself, are the 
exemplary gestures of a very English ideology, which appeals to a preor 

post-political notion of ‘common humanity.’ Yet, ironically, what Smiley 
and Karla have in common is their inhumanity, their exile from any sort 
of ‘normal’ world of human passions. When they meet in Delhi, Smiley is 
baffled, frustrated but also fascinated by Karla’s refusal of the appeal, 
unable to fathom a commitment to an abstract ideology, especially when 
- in Smiley’s view - it has self-evidently failed. ‘The irony in le Carre’s 
fiction,’ writes Tony Barley, ‘is that a sound basis for commitment is 
always either sought or mourned for its absence, and yet when genuine 
commitment appears (invariably in communism) it is treated as 
incomprehensible. Communism becomes fanaticism, not a strength but a 
weakness’ (Taking Sides: The Fiction of John le Carre (Open University 
Press, 1986, 95). Barley rightly argues that Smiley cannot be read as a 
cipher for liberal ideology because the incoherencies and impasses of his 
own position are never resolved. Behind the manifest content of Smiley’s 
entreaties to Karla - come and join us, give up your dead generalities, 
enjoy the particularities of the lived world - the latent message is that all 
Britain has to offer is disillusionment, the impossibility of belief. (Smiley 
tells Guillam that ‘fanaticism’ will be the undoing of Karla: in fact, when 
Karla is defeated in Smiley’s People, it is because of his failure to be 
sufficiently ‘fanatical’.) Very little of this comes out in Alfredson’s 
depoliticised film, in which Smiley is simply a wronged hero who 
ultimately attains justice, Haydon is simply a traitor, and communism is 
simply an exotic period reference. The nickname for MI6, ‘The Circus,’ in 
fact openly acknowledges the aberrant enjoyment available to those who 
have crossed into this fictional Cold World. The multivalent origin of the 
nickname - in addition to hinting at the way the spies play their deadly 
game in a spirit of mordant, laconic cynicism, it is also a near homonym 
of ‘service,’ and a play on the location in the novel of MI6’s offices: 
Cambridge Circus, central London - tells you a great deal about the 
world in which Smiley operates. Much of the power of the television 
version derived from the way it threw us directly into this world. 
Guinness’s Smiley incarnated a model of BBC paternalism: he guided us 
through his world, but he had high expectations of us. Very little was 
explained - we had to pick up le Carre’s invented nomenclature 
(scalphunters, lamplighters) on the fly. The work slang invoked the 
exoticism of a rarefied form of labour, while also suggesting the 
routinisation of espionage for those involved in it on a daily basis. It all 

contributed to the feeling that the Circus was a lived-in world. One of 
the major problems with Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor, by contrast, is that its 
world doesn’t feel lived-in at all. Gratifyingly, the film does not talk 
down to audiences; just as in the TV series, we are required to orientate 
ourselves in the Circus’s intrigues. But the combination of Oldman’s 
inexpressiveness and the compression brought about by having to tell so 
complicated a story in such a short time results in something that is 
strangely uninvolving. The film is almost entirely lacking in tension or 
paranoia; in the TV series, the scene where Guillam steals a file from the 
Circus is almost unbearably tense. In the film, the same scene plays out 
in a curiously distanced way. Then there is the question of period, and 
the film’s striving to create a sense of London in the 1970s. I was too 
often reminded of Life on Mars, which evoked the decade with a series of 
clumsily placed period signifiers. As with Life on Mars, much of 
Alfedson’s film looks like a 1970s theme park. Rather than discreetly 
constituting a period background, branded goods (Trebor mints, Ajax 
household cleaner) are distractingly pushed to the foreground of our 
attention, details that we are invited to approvingly note. But where the 
details matter, this new version is lacking. Eras produce certain voices, 
certain faces. What’s missing in Alfredson’s version is something like the 
grain of the 1970s. Too often, the actors seem like 21st-century 
moisturised metrosexuals in 1970s drag - and bad drag at that. 
Presented with photographs of people from the 1970s, the cliched but 
accurate observation is that people looked so much older then. But the 
preposterously fresh-faced likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays 
Guillam) and Tom Hardy (in the role of rogue agent Ricki Tarr) aren’t 
nearly weathered enough to convince as 1970s secret agents. The skin, 
the hair are too good. The faces are without the sallow, harrowed, 
harried look that Michael Jayston and Hywel Bennett brought to the 
roles in the 1970s production; their voices unable to convey any sense of 
the bitter and brutalising effects of the spy’s life. John Hurt’s Control, at 
least, has the right weatherbeaten complexion and cynical-playful 
cadences. Accents are a severe problem in the film. Oldman plays Smiley 
as generically posh, but at the same time he sounds like no one you’ve 
ever heard; at points there’s an oddly Scottish lilt to his accent. The 
accent of Toby Jones’s Percy Alleline, meanwhile - played as Scottish in 
keeping with the novel - keeps drifting southward. Kathy Burke is 

hopelessly miscast as Connie Sachs: she sounds like a schoolgirl taking 
on the part of a posh woman in the school play. The problem here isn’t 
just one of authenticity; it’s that the wayward accents once again 
undermine the sense of a lived-in world. There is too much conspicuous 
effort going into this 1970s simulation. Throughout, you can practically 
hear Gary Oldman straining to hold back the Estuary English. In the BBC 
version, the Circus was an unprepossessing space - functional, dreary 
corridors leading into cramped offices. In Alfredson’s version, Control’s 
office looks more like something from a nightclub than what you would 
expect to see in MI6. One wants to escape the 1970s version, but 
Alfredson doesn’t give us nearly enough to do that. There is much that is 
different, but nothing that is strong enough to displace the television 
version in the memory. The casting of Colin Firth as Haydon, however, 
at least allows us to see the character in a different way. The face of Ian 
Richardson - who would go onto play the Tory grandee and Machiavel 
in the BBC television series House of Cards - provided a grey-eminence 
image of British power in the 1970s and 80s. I don’t know who it was 
who said that Colin Firth looks like the midway point between the 
current British prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick 
Clegg, but the observation is very astute. The face of the British 
Establishment no longer has the hawk-like puckishness of Richardson; it 
has the rumpled, casual youthfulness of Firth. One of the major problems 
with Alfredson’s film is that it assumes the ruling values of the neoliberal 
world governed by youth and consumerism (isn’t this what ‘American’ 
codes for in the Smiley novels?). Richard Sennett has argued that the 
chronic short-termism of neoliberal culture has resulted in a ‘corrosion 
of character’ (The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of 
Work in the New Capitalism, W. W. Norton, 1999): a destruction of 
permanence, loyalty, and the capacity to plan. Isn’t Smiley’s allure tied 
up with the possibilities of character itself? In the 1970s, Smiley showed 
up all the inadequacies, squalid compromises, and subterranean 
brutalities of social democracy. Then, Smiley’s doubts and his failings 
prompted us to imagine a better world even as we struggled to resist 
Smiley’s blankly and perversely comforting avuncularity; now, when 
that better world seems if anything further away, it takes all our effort to 
resist the lure of nostalgia for the social-democratic world of which 
Smiley was both the conscience and the dirty secret. 

The Past is an Alien Planet: The First and 
Last Episodes of Life on Mars 

k-punk post January 10, 2006 

Life On Mars is symptomatic enough to be interesting. Symptomatic of 
what? Well, of a culture that has lost confidence not just that the future 
will be good, but that any sort of future is possible. And also: Life On 
Mars suggests that one of the chief resources of recent British culture - 
the past - is reaching the point of exhaustion. 

The scenario is that Sam Tyler (John Simm), a detective from 2006, is 
hit by a car and finds himself back in 1973. The game that you can’t 
help playing as you watch is: how convincing is the simulation of 1973? 
You’re constantly on the look out for period anachronisms. The answer is 
that it isn’t very convincing. But not because of anachronisms. The 
problem is that this is a 73 that doesn’t feel lived in. The actual post¬ 
psychedelic, quasi-Eastern Bloc seediness of the 70s is unretrievable; 
kitsch wallpaper and bell bottoms are transformed instantly into Style 
quotations the moment the camera falls upon them. 

(There must be some technical reason - maybe it’s the film stock they 
use - that accounts for why British TV is no longer capable of rendering 
any sense of a lived-in world. No matter what is filmed, everything 
always looks as if it has been thickly, slickly painted in gloss, like it’s all 
a corporate video. That remains my problem with the new Dr Who as it 
happens: the contemporary British scenes look like a theme park, a very 
stagey stage-set, too well lit.) 

‘Look Out There’s a Thief About’ public information films on black and 
white TV, Open University lecturers with preposterous moustaches and 
voluminous collars, the test card... Every thing is so iconic, and the thing 
with icons, after all, is that they evoke nothing. The icon is the very 
opposite of the Madeleine, Chris Marker’s name - rhyming Hitchcock 
and Proust - for those totemic triggers that suddenly abduct you into the 
past. The point being that the Madeleine can only manage this time- 

snatching function because it has avoided museumification and 
memorialisation, stayed out of the photographs, been forgotten in a 
corner. Hearing T-Rex now doesn’t remind you of 73, it reminds you of 
nostalgia programmes about 1973. 

And isn’t part of our problem that every cultural object from 1963 on 
has been so thoroughly, forensically, mulled over that nothing can any 
longer transport us back? (A problem of digital memory: Baudrillard 
observes somewhere that computers don’t really remember because they 
lack the ability to forget.) 

k-punk post , April 13, 2007 

In the end, the science fiction elements of Life On Mars consisted solely 
in an ontological hesitation: is this real or not? As such, Life On Mars fell 
squarely into Todorov’s definition of the Fantastic as that which 
hesitates between the Uncanny (that which can ultimately be explained 
naturalistically) and the Marvellous (that which can only be accounted 
for in supernatural terms). The predicament that Life On Mars explored 
was: is Sam Tyler in a coma, and the whole 1970s world in which he is 
lost some kind of unconscious confabulation? Or has he, by some means 
not yet understood, been transported back into the real 1973? The show 
maintained the equivocation until the end (the final episode was 
ambivalent to the point of being cryptic). 

Simm has wryly observed that the show’s central conceit lets the 
production off the hook. If Tyler was in a coma, then any of Life On 
Mars’s historical inaccuracies could be explained away as gaps in the 
character’s recollections of the period. No doubt the enjoyment of Life 
On Mars derived from its imperfect recollection, not of 1973 itself, but of 
the television of the 1970s. The programme was mitigated nostalgia, I 
Love 1973 as a cop show. I say cop show, because it is clear that the SF 
elements of Life On Mars were little more than pretexts; the show was a 
meta-cop show rather than meta-SF. The time travel conceit permitted 
the showing of representations which would otherwise be unacceptable, 
and beneath the framing ontological question (is this real or not?), there 
was a question about desire and politics: do we want this to be real? 

As the avatar of the present, Sam Tyler became the bad conscience of 
the 70s cop show, whose discontent with the past permitted us to enjoy 

it again. Simm, as the modern, enlightened ‘good cop’, was less the anti¬ 
type of antediluvian ‘bad cop’ Gene Hunt than the postmodern disavowal 
which made possible our enjoyment of Hunt’s invective and violence. 
Hunt, played by Philip Glenister, became the show’s real star, beloved of 
the tabloids who adored quoting his streams of abuse, carefully 
constructed by the writers so that they could come across as comic 
rather than inflammatory. Hunt’s ‘no-nonsense policing’ was presented 
with enough ‘grit’ to make us wince, but never so much violence that it 
would invoke disgust. (In this respect, the programme was the cultural 
equivalent of a blow to a suspect that would not show up under later 
medical examination.) 

Undoubtedly, although perhaps unintentionally, the show’s ultimate 
message was reactionary; in the end, rather than Tyler educating Hunt, 
it was he would come to an accommodation with Hunt’s methods. When, 
in the final episode, Tyler is faced with a choice between betraying Hunt 
or staying loyal (at this point in the narrative, it appears that Tyler’s 
betrayal of Hunt is the requisite price Tyler must pay in order to return 
to 2007), this also became a choice between 1973 and the present day 
that amounted to a decision, not about collar lengths or other cultural 
preferences, but about policing styles. Audience sympathy is managed 
such that, however much we disapprove of Hunt, we are never supposed 
to lose faith in him, so that Tyler’s betrayal seemed far worse than any of 
Hunt’s many misdemeanours. Tyler’s (apparent) return to 2007 
underscores this by presenting the modern environment as sterile, 
drearily worthy, ultimately far less real than the rough justice of Hunt’s 
era. Modern wisdom (‘how can you maintain the law by breaking the 
law?’) is set against Hunt’s renegade-heroic identification of himself with 
the law (‘I am the law, so how can I break it?’) The deep libidinal appeal 
of Hunt derives from his impossible duality as upholder of the Law and 
he who enjoys unlimited jouissance. The two faces of the Father, the 
stern lawgiver and Pere Jouissance, resolved: the perfect figure of 
reactionary longing, a charismatic embodiment of everything allegedly 
forbidden to us by ‘political correctness’. 

‘Can The World Be as Sad as It Seems?’: 
David Peace and his Adapters 

David Peace’s four Red Riding novels were acts of exorcism and 
excavation of the near-past, a bloody riposte to I Love The 1970s 
clipshow nostalgia. They stalk the West Yorkshire that Peace grew up in, 
transforming real events - the framing and intimidation of Stefan Kisco; 
the incompetent police operation to catch the Yorkshire Ripper - into 
background for brutal and unrelenting fictions that possess an 
apocalyptic lyricism. 

Peace has always been dogged by comparisons with James Ellroy. 
There’s no doubt that encountering Ellroy liberated something in Peace, 
but in the end Peace is the better writer. Peace has called the experience 
of reading Ellroy’s White Jazz his ‘Sex Pistols moment’. But Peace builds 
upon what Ellroy achieved much in the way that the postpunk groups 
leapt into the space that the Pistols had blown open. Peace extrapolates 
a pulp modernist poetics from Ellroy’s experiments in telegraphic 
compression, and while Ellroy’s pugilistic prose has a pump-action 
amphetamine drive, Peace’s writing is hypnotic and oneiric; its 
incantatory repetitions delaying and veiling plot revelations rather than 
rushing headlong towards resolution. Despite presenting seemingly 
similar worlds - in which the police are routinely corrupt, journalists are 
venal and co-optable, and the wealthy are vampiric exploiters - their 
political orientations are very different. Ellroy is a Hobbesian 
conservative, who evinces a macho pragmatism that accepts violence, 
exploitation and betrayal as inevitable. The same phenomena are 
oppressively omnipresent in Peace’s world, but there is no sense of 
acceptance: instead, his novels read like howls of agony and calls for 
retribution, divine or otherwise. 

Peace, who has said that he aimed to produce a Crime fiction which is 
no longer entertainment, has written Crime works that are hauntological 
in a triple sense. The Crime genre is of course well suited to explore the 
(moral, existential, theological) problems posed by what Quentin 

Meillassoux called ‘odious deaths’: the deaths ‘of those who have met 
their end prematurely, whose death is not the proper conclusion of a life 
but its violent curtailment’; and as they moved away from the uneasy 
combination of fanciful genre trappings, period signifiers, Angry Young 
Man homage and brutality that characterised 1974, the novels of the Red 
Riding Quartet were simultaneously drawn towards actuality and 
theology, as if the proximity of the one entailed the other. Readers are 
put into the position of spectral mourners by the voices of those who 
have died odiously, the Ripper’s victims, heard in the visionary 
‘Transmissions’ which preface each of the chapters in 1980, sections 
which combine the actual (gleaned from reportage and biography) with 
the spectral. 

The novels are hauntological in another sense, a sense that is closer to 
the way in which we have used it in relation to music, but not quite the 
same. Peace is not at all interested in the problems of degraded memory 
which preoccupy The Caretaker, Burial or Basinski. His is a past without 
crackle, rendered in the first person and in a tense that is very nearly 
present. The occlusions in the narrative are due, not to faulty recording 
devices or memory disorders (cultural or personal) but to the self¬ 
blindings of his characters, who see themselves (and the events of which 
they are a part) only through a glass darkly. In the end, everything - 
narrative, intelligibility - succumbs to total murk; as the characters 
begin to disassociate, it becomes difficult to know what is happening, or 
what has happened; at a certain point, it is unclear as to whether we 
have crossed over into the land of the dead. 

Hunter, the senior Manchester detective assigned to investigate the 
West Yorkshire police force in 1980, finds himself caught in a world in 
which things don’t add up; they don’t fit together. It’s a Gnostic terrain. The 
Gnostics thought that the world was made of a corrupt matter 
characterised by heavy weight and impenetrable opacity: a murky, 
muddy mire in which fallen angels - one of the persistent images in the 
Red Riding books - are trapped. There is no question of Hunter, or 
solicitor John Piggott in 1983 - or even Peace - being able to completely 
illuminate what has happened. This is a world in which, as Tony Grisoni, 
the screenwriter who adapted the novels for Channel 4, puts it, 
‘narratives disappear into the dark’. 

The libidinal orientation towards the past is also markedly different in 

the case of Peace and sonic hauntology: whereas hauntological music 
has emphasised the unexplored potentials prematurely curtailed in the 
periods it invokes, Peace’s novels are driven by the unexpiated suffering 
of Yorkshire at the end of the 70s. And Peace’s writing is also 
hauntological in its intuition that particular places are stained by 
particular occurrences (and vice versa). As he has insisted in many 
interviews, it is no accident that Sutcliffe was the Yorkshire Ripper. 
Peace’s books are avowedly anti-nostalgic, the anti-Life On Mars, with its 
ambivalence towards police brutality (and its media representation). 
There is no such vindication in Peace’s novels, no suppressed yearning 
for a time in which coppers could beat suspects with impunity. After all, 
it is corruption, rather than criminality per se, that is the focus of the 
Red Riding Quartet. 

Music in Peace’s books functions as a hauntological trigger. He’s 
remarked that he uses music, including music he doesn’t like, to take 
him back to the feel, the grain, of a period. Musical references are 
embedded in the text either diegetically, as background sound, or more 
esoterically, as cryptic-epigraphic ciphers and repeated incantations: a 
portal effect that gratifyingly echoes (in reverse) the way in which music 
of the 1970s, especially postpunk, would direct listeners to fiction. 1980 
is haunted in particular by Throbbing Gristle, especially the phrase that 
they took from another killer, Charles Manson: ‘can the world be as sad 
as it seems?’ In Peace’s hands, this question becomes an urgent 
theological enquiry, the very relentlessness of the sadness and misery he 
recounts calling forth an absent God, a God who is experienced as 
absence, the great light eclipsed by the world’s unending tears. The 
world, the sad, desolated world, is full of angels whose wings have either 
been shorn off, reduced to stubble, or which have grown into gigantic, 
dirty monstrosities...addict angels hooked on alcohol, casual but 
incessant lusts, and the trash of the consumer society that is struggling to 
be born out of the wreckage of the social democratic consensus...angels 
whose ultimate response to the world is puking (everyone pukes in 
Peace’s books), throwing up the whiskies and the undercooked crispy 
pancakes, but never being able to purge any of it, never being able to 
take flight. 

The religious elements in the books become increasingly foregrounded 
as the Quartet develops, until the deeply ambiguous, hallucinatory 

ending of 1983 becomes a quasi-Gnostic treatise on evil and suffering. 
The final section of the novel, ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ (that 
transfiguration of pop cultural reference into epigraph being one of 
Peace’s signature techniques), explicitly posits the idea that, far from 
undermining the existence of God, evil and suffering entail that God 
must exist. Eclipse implies something that is eclipsed, a hidden source of 
light that produces all this shadow. In the philosophy of religion, the 
problem of evil maintains that suffering, particularly suffering visited 
upon the innocent, means that the theistic God could not exist, since a 
benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient being would not countenance 
undeserved suffering. With his inventory of wretched child abuse cases, 
Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov makes the most famous, and most 
passionate, statement of this position. Yet if there is no God, the 
suffering remains, only now there is no possibility of its expiation; if 
there can be no justice to come, the universe is permanently blighted, 
irrevocably scarred by atrocity, abuse and torture. 

The Red Riding novels inspired Channel 4 into making the kind of 
television dramas that some of us had long since ceased hoping could 
ever be made in Britain again. The three films, broadcast in 2009, were 
the most striking British dramas of the first decade of the 21st century, 
towering above all the facile costume epics, routine police procedurals 
and emotional pornography which clogged the schedules. Moreover, in 
their use of setting and landscape, in the epiphanic power of their 
images, the Red Riding films attained a visual poetry and an 
expressionist naturalism that exceeded practically anything British 
cinema has achieved in the past 30 years. 

As Nick James observed in his preview of the Red Riding films for 
Sight & Sound, nothing in the previous career of the Red Riding’s three 
directors - Julian Jarrold for 1974, James Marsh for 1980, and Anand 
Tucker for 1983 - gave any hints that they could produce work of this 
quality. In many ways, it is as if the auteur of these films was Peace 
himself, and the three directors succeed so consummately because they 
allowed themselves to be channels of his infernal vision. It was 
inevitable that some compression occurred in the transition from page to 
screen; indeed, one whole novel from Peace’s Red Riding sequence - 
1977 - was never filmed, but Tony Grisoni deserves immense credit for 
the way that he weaved the three films into a symphonic coherence that 

nevertheless refused easy closure and intelligibility. 

Peace’s equivalent of Ellroy’s anti-hero Dudley Smith, the corrupt 
detective who justifies his own running of drugs and vice operations as 
‘containment’, is Maurice Jobson, the whey-faced policeman who 
features in all three of the films. Where Smith (as masterfully played by 
James Cromwell in the best Ellroy adaptation to date, LA Confidential 
[1997]) is charming, charismatic and flamboyantly loquacious, Jobson 
(as played by David Morrissey in the C4 adaptations) is taciturn, 
abstracted, immobile, blank, in a semi-fugue state of disassociation from 
the atrocities he participates in. Morrissey’s is one of many excellent 
performances in the trilogy: all of them masterpieces of measure and 
controlled power, proper television/ film acting, far from the braying 
thespery that the British theatrical tradition often turns out. Rebecca 
Hall is damaged and dangerous as Paula Garland, Maxine Peake, angular 
yet vulnerable as Helen Marshall. Sean Harris manages to make Robert 
Craven plausibly loathsome without tripping over into grand guignol 
grotesquerie; while Paddy Considine brings a flinty resolution to the role 
of Peter Hunter, one of the few lightbringers in the Red Riding’s North, 
an inverted world in which evil enjoys carnivalesque licence and the 
police and the powerful are free to ‘do what they want’. 

The film adaptation of Peace’s extraordinary novel The Damned Utd 
lived down to expectations to just about the same extent that the 
Channel 4 films exceeded them. The team tasked with adapting the 
novel looked unpromising. Before The Damned Utd, Director Tom Hooper 
(drafted in after Stephen Frears left the project) had a background in 
fairly unremarkable television (he would later go on to make The King’s 
Speech), while the shtick of screenwriter Peter Morgan and lead actor 
Michael Sheen - as established in The Queen and Frost/ Nixon - didn’t 
have any obvious fit with Peace’s fractured and abrasive modernism. In 
the end, Hooper and Morgan didn’t adapt Peace; they eliminated him. 
Hooper’s film returns us to the found object-narrative - Brian Clough’s 
bitter 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United in 1974 - that Peace used 
as the raw material for his ‘fiction based on a fact’. What’s missing is 
everything that Peace brought to the facts: the bite of a Real that will 
always elude (bourgeois) realism; and the shaping power of a Gnostic 
mythography, in which the most malign entity is the cursed land of 
Yorkshire itself. 

It can be tiresome to criticise a film adaptation simply for the ways it 
differs from its source novel. In this case, however, a close comparison of 
the two versions of The Damned Utd is instructive, for two reasons. First, 
because, in erasing Peace’s signature, the film in effect competes with his 
rendition of the Clough/ Leeds story; and second, because Peace’s pulp 
modernism precisely offers British culture an escape from the kind of 
good humoured, well balanced, middle of the road, middlebrow realism 
that Hooper and Morgan trade in. 

At the press screening, Morgan said that when he read The Damned 
Utd, it brought a nostalgia rush ‘like eating Farley’s rusks’. Yet surely 
even the most guileless of the readers of Peace’s novel could see that it 
tastes not of the warm mush of baby food but of bile, scotch and 
refluxed stomach acid. In Hooper and Morgan’s hands, Clough’s story is 
reduced to all of the givens, all the off-the-shelf narrative and thematic 
pegs: he was a ‘misunder-stood genius’, struggling against an 
establishment represented by puffed-up provincial patriarchs like the 
Derby County chairman, Sam Longson (well played by Jim Broadbent); 
he was self-destructive, and he needed his partner Peter Taylor (Timothy 
Spall) to curb his excesses; he was locked into an oedipal struggle with 
the man he replaced at Leeds, Don Revie. Even this is told more than it 
is shown, and throughout, the audience treated as if it is witless: 
dialogue is too often used for clumsy plot exposition or to crudely 
telegraph Themes. Not only do Hooper and Morgan fail to evoke Peace’s 
existential terrain, his blighted vision of Yorkshire, they also convey 
little of his intense sense of territoriality. In the novel, Leeds’s Elland 
Road ground is the site of a struggle over space in which Clough is up 
against both the spectre of Don Revie and the animal aggression of the 
players he has left behind. (A striking image from the novel - of Clough 
chopping up and burning Revie’s desk in an attempt to exorcise the 
absent father’s ghost - inexplicably never made it to screen.) The film 
also misses the purgatorial rhythm of sport which Peace caught so 
acutely. As every sports fan - never mind about coach - knows, the 
jouissance of sport is essentially masochistic. ‘The Damned Utd shows 
what Clough’s tragedy was,’ Chris Petit put in his review of the novel, 
‘deep down, he knew that winning was only loss deferred.’ The intense 
fear that colours everything in Peace’s novel is dissolved in a tone that is 
frequently jaunty. 

Then there is Michael Sheen. The problem with Sheen’s now well 
established approach to historical characters is that it deprives the film’s 
world of any autonomous reality - everything is indexed to a reality 
external to the film, judged only by how well it matches our already 
existing image of the character, whether that be Clough, Kenneth 
Williams, Blair or Frost. (And there are bizarre bleed-throughs between 
the characters - at one point, it felt as if Sheen’s campy Clough had 
morphed into Kenneth Williams.) Certainly, Peace has an advantage over 
the film-makers here: written fiction can move beyond received 
television images of figures from recent history far more quickly than 
film can but an actor with more courage and presence than Sheen might 
have reached beyond physical appearances to reach a truth of Clough 
not accessible via the TV footage. Instead, Sheen offers his usual tracing 
of mannerisms and verbal tics, competent enough as far as it goes, but 
devoid of any of the tortured inner life that Peace gave to his Clough. 
Even if the acting were uniformly superb, it would have needed far more 
than Hooper provides in order to summon the dread and misery of 
Peace’s world; but the indifferent photography and the often appalling 
soundtrack make Hooper’s The Damned Utd feel more like a 
dramatisation of actual events than a film of Peace’s novel. 

Now Then, Now Then: Jimmy Savile and ‘the 70s 

On Trial’ 

July 2013 

The turn that events took had all the look of some kind of ritual 
assassination. The killing not of a body - the body was already dead - 
but of a name. It was as if some kind of deal had been struck - you’ll get 
to live out your life with your reputation intact (or as intact as it could 
be), but a year after your death, it will all be destroyed. Nothing, 
absolutely nothing, will survive. Your headstone will be dismantled. The 
penthouse in which you lived will be demolished. Your name will 
become synonymous with evil. 

September 2012, and it all starts to come up. Like a build-up of 
effluent that could no longer be contained, first seeping, then surging 
out. Jimmy Savile, the nation’s favourite grotesque, the former DJ and 
children’s entertainer, is exposed as a serial sex abuser and paedophile. 
You can’t say it comes as a surprise, and that’s one of the most unsettling 
aspects of the whole affair. How out in the open it all was...We all read 
the text purporting to be the transcript of an unbroadcast scene from the 
BBC’s satirical programme, Have I Got News For You, in which Savile is 
openly accused of being a child sex abuser, and took it at face value (it 
seems now that the transcript was a fake, but it was an astonishingly 
convincing simulation...The rhythm of the interaction between the 
panellists...The way the verbal sparring escalates into aggression...The 
name of the supposed victim, Sarah all had a ring of 
authenticity - the signature of a Real, perhaps, that could not at then be 
recognised except in fiction...) 

Yes, in a certain way, it was all out in the open - we all knew, or felt 
that we knew - but it mattered that the abuse was never acknowledged 
in his lifetime. For while the story remained unofficial Savile would not 
only go unpunished, he could continue to comport himself as a 
celebrated entertainer, a knight of the realm, stalwart charity fundraiser. 

No doubt Savile took a sociopathic delight in being able to get away 
with it in plain sight. In his 1974 autobiography, As It Happens, Savile 
had boasted about having sex with an underage runaway. The police 
wouldn’t dare touch him, he taunted. Neither, it seemed, would the 
media. Occasionally, a journalist would attempt to breach his defences. 
Louis Theroux did his trademark gentle probing of Savile about the 
paedophilia allegations in 2000 BBC documentary, but of course there 
was no question of the old man cracking. 

By the end of 2012, the 70s was returning, no longer as some 
bittersweet nostalgia trip, but as a trauma. The phrase it’s like something 
out of David Peace has become something of a commonplace in the past 
few years. Strangely for fiction that is about the past, Peace’s work has 
actually gained in prophetic power since its publication. Peace wasn’t 
predicting the future - how could he be, when he was writing about the 
70s and the 80s? - so much as he had fixated on those parts of the past 
which were about to resurface. The Fritzl case had echoes of the 
underground lair in which children are kept prisoner in the Red Riding 
novels. And everything that came to light about conspiracies amongst 
the English power elite - all the murk and tangle of Murdoch and 
Hillsborough - seemed to throw us back into Peace’s labyrinths of 
corruption and cover-up. Murdoch, Hillsborough, Savile...Pull on one 
thread and it all started to connect, and, wherever you looked, there was 
the same grim troika - police, politicians, media...Watching each other’s 
backs (partly for fear that they will be stabbed in their own back)... 
Having the goods on each other, the best kind of insurance policy, the 
ruling class model of solidarity... 

After his death, Savile increasingly started to look like something 
Peace had dreamt up. We were drawn to a certain kind of fiction 
because consensual reality, the commonsense world that we like to think 
we live in, wasn’t adequate to a figure like Savile. At the same time, it 
became clear that the elements in Peace’s writing that previously seemed 
most melodramatically excessive were those which ended up rhyming 
with the new revelations. It’s as if melodramatic excess is built into the 
Real itself, and the sheer implausibility of corruption and abuse itself 
forms a kind of cloak for the abuser: surely this can’t be happening? 

Savile’s stomping ground was right in the heart of Peace’s 
Leeds...where the entrepreneur-DJ started to build his empire, and 

where, knowing that abuse is easier to get away with when it comes 
disguised as care, he volunteered as a hospital porter... A spoonful of 
sugar helps the medicine go down... Incredibly, Savile was for a time a 
suspect in the Yorkshire Ripper investigation - members of the public 
had named Savile, and the body of one of the Ripper’s victims, Irene 
Richardson, had been found very near to his flat. Then there was the 
infamous photograph of Savile, Peter Sutcliffe and Frank Bruno at 
Broadmoor in 1991 - Savile, toting his signature cigar, brokering a 
meeting between a serial killer and a troubled former celebrity boxer. 
The grinning Sutcliffe looks like he’s wearing one of Savile’s shell-suits. 
The insanity of a society and of an era - all their occult complicities 
between celebrity, psychosis and criminality - is screamingly exposed 
here. Ritual inversion: light (entertainment) transforming into the 
darkest horror. By the end of 2012, Savile’s name was so irretrievably 
sullied that his old friend Peter Sutcliffe felt the need to speak up for 

Savile was the kind of figure who came to dominate popular culture 
without inspiring much affection. You couldn’t say he was ever loved. 
Someone writing in to the London Review of Books dug up the BBC’s 
audience research reports on Savile’s first appearances on Top of the 
Pops. ‘10 December 1964. Jimmy Savile, who introduced the programme 
on this occasion, was obviously disliked by a large number of the sample 
audience. Many indicated their aversion to this artist by remarking that 
anything they had to say about him would be “quite unprintable”, whilst 
comment by those who freely expressed their feelings was liberally 
larded with such terms as “this nutcase”; “this obnoxious ‘thing’”; and 
“this revolting spectacle”.’ You don’t have to be loved, or even liked, to 
be a popular figure. Savile didn’t even have the love-to-hate appeal of a 
national pantomime villain such as Simon Cowell. His ticket to fame was 
his grotesquerie itself (and this grotesquerie meant that one of the most 
initially unnerving things about the revelations was being forced to think 
of Savile as any kind of sexual being). As Andrew O’Hagan argued in his 
piece on Savile for the London Review of Books, what mattered in the 
new world of television light entertainment was not likeability, or talent, 
but a certain larger-than-life aura - call it eccentricity, or call it 
derangement - which Savile easily possessed as his birthright. Even 
those who found Savile creepy could accept that he ‘belonged’ on 

television. After all, where else could he possibly belong? The problem 
was that, after the 60s, if you belonged on television, there was nowhere 
that wasn’t open to you. We now know that Savile was given keys to the 
Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane, so that he could wander 
around the institution - just one example of the freedoms that Savile’s 
celebrity and power would acquire for him. We hear that Savile 
molested paraplegic patients in their hospital beds, and I’m reminded of 
Dennis Potter’s 1976 television play, Brimstone and Treacle, in which the 
lead character, the unctuous Martin, rapes a severely brain-damaged 
young woman while pretending to care for her. The BBC withdrew the 
play just before it was due to be broadcast - presumably at around the 
same time that Savile was appearing on Saturday night kids’ TV while 
raping helpless patients in private. 

As Savile’s reputation descended into the mire, it pulled others’ with 
it. The police investigation prompted by the scandal, Operation Yewtree, 
went after a whole slew of former household names with (surely) more 
to come. Someone, I don’t remember who, says it’s like the 70s have gone 
on trial. Yes, but it’s a very particular strand of the 70s that is under 
investigation - not the officially debauched rock ‘n’ roll 70s, not 
Zeppelin or Sabbath, but the family entertainment 70s. 

As the stories mounted up, Savile came to seem more and more 
unbelievable. Taken together, even facts that were already known about 
Savile before his death came to look as if they couldn’t possibly be true. 
Could it really be the case, for instance, that Savile had taken part in 
negotiations between the Israeli and the Egyptian governments in the 
70s? That he had mediated between Prince Charles and Princess Diana 
as their marriage started to fail? (And how mad, how desperate, would 
you have to be to take Jimmy Savile’s advice on your marriage?) That he 
had spent Christmas after Christmas with Margaret Thatcher? (Thatcher 
had tried four times to ennoble Savile, but was repeatedly rebuffed by 
her advisers, and only succeeded in knighting him at the fag-end of her 
period as Prime Minister.) 

Murdoch and the Daily Mail wasted no time in pushing the idea that 
the abuse was an institutional pathology - it was the BBC, and, more 
broadly, the paternalistic media culture of the 60s and 70s, which had 
incubated Savile’s corruption. The BBC, now in a permanent state of 
confusion about its role in a neoliberal world, duly went into a neurotic, 

narcissistic collapse. Its judgement was shot; it had failed to broadcast a 
report about Savile’s abuse, and the crisis over Savile would push it into 
moving too hastily when, a few months later, a Tory peer was wrongly 
named in another abuse scandal. Murdoch and the Mail crowed on about 
how the Savile revelations demonstrated the importance of press 
freedom - but the question that they neatly evaded was, where were 
their brave hacks? Why didn’t they expose Savile when it mattered, when 
he was alive? 

When the question started to be asked about how he’d got away with 
it, we already knew the answer. He had connections at the very top. The 
very top. And he took care to make friends with those in power and 
authority at lower levels, too. Police officers regularly attended Savile’s 
now notorious Friday Morning Club meetings at his home in Leeds. 

Savile’s ascent to his unlikely position of power and influence required 
immense amounts of hard work. One thing you could never accuse him 
of was slacking. A forensically researched post on the Sump Plug blog 
details how infernally busy Savile was in the early days of his career: 

The Plaza [Ballroom in Manchester] was just one of many dance halls 
and clubs that Savile oversaw, managed, diskjockeyed at, wielded 
shadowy control over or had some kind of undeclared stake in, not 
only in Manchester but also on the other side of the Pennines —in 
Bradford, in Wakefield, in Halifax, over on the coast in Scarborough 
and Whitby, and especially in Leeds. In his hometown the joints he 
presided over included the Cat’s Whiskers and the Locarno Ballroom in 
the County Arcade, known by locals simply as ‘the Mecca’ (later 
rebranded as the Spinning Disc). That’s where, in 1958, his 
predilection for underage girls first came to the attention of the police. 
The matter was swiftly resolved by peeling a few hundred quid off the 
big roll of twenties that he always carried, right up until he died. 

Meanwhile, in Manchester on any given night in the late 50s and 
early 60s, if you couldn’t find Savile at the Plaza at lunchtime, he’d 
surely be at the Ritz later on. Or, if not, try the Three Coins in 
Fountain Street. He didn’t even rest on Sundays; that was when he 
span the platters for upwards of two thousand jivers and twisters at 
his Top Ten Club at Belle Vue. 

The man was everywhere —at practically every major dance hall 
and nightclub in the North’s heaving conurbations, as much of a 
fixture as the rotating mirror ball. 

Savile’s empire quickly spread down south too, down to the Ilford Palais, 
and to Decca Records, who would pay him to play their latest releases. 
Up North, Savile’s rackets were protected by a gang of bodybuilders, 
boxers, and wrestlers, including - improbably for those of us who came 
to know him as the comically fat wrestler Big Daddy, cuddly mainstay of 
Saturday afternoon television - Shirley Crabtree. The roots of 70s 
television were here, in these ballrooms and dancehalls, their seediness 
waiting to be transubstantiated into light entertainment. 

But, a year after Savile’s death, the transubstantiation would go into 
extreme reverse. Now then, now then - one of Savile’s catchphrases 
started to assume an ominous significance. Only a few months 
previously, the BBC had broadcast a number of programmes celebrating 
his life and work. Now, condemnation is not enough: all traces of his 
existence must be removed. Not only is the headstone taken away, but 
we hear - can this possibly be true? It’s impossible to tell in the fevered 
atmosphere - that the family of a child buried near to Savile had 
requested that Savile’s remains be disinterred - as if he were some 
medieval devil, a noxious cloud of malignancy that can corrupt even the 
dead. More farcically, CBeebies, one of the BBC’s children’s channels, 
was censured because it broadcasted a repeat of an episode of the 
programme the Tweenies, in which one of the characters impersonated 

Now then, now then... 

At the time when Savile was abusing, the victims were faced, not with 
Jimmy Savile the monster, Jimmy Savile the prolific abuser of children, but 
with Jimmy Savile OBE - Sir Jimmy Savile - Jimmy Savile, Knight 
Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great. 
When we ask how Savile got away with it all, we must remember this. 
Naturally, fear played a part in keeping Savile’s victims quiet. Who’s 
going to believe your word against the word of a television entertainer, 

someone who has raised millions for charity? But we also need to take 
seriously the way that power can warp the experience of reality itself. 
Abuse by the powerful induces a cognitive dissonance in the vulnerable 
- this can’t possibly be happening. What has happened can be pieced 
together only in retrospect. The powerful trade on the idea that abuse 
and corruption used to happen, but not any more. Abuse and cover-up 
can be admitted, but only on condition that they are confined to the 
past. That was then, things are different now... 

London After the Rave: Burial 

k-punk post April 14, 2006 

Burial is the kind of album I’ve dreamt of for years; literally. It is oneiric 
dance music, a collection of the ‘dreamed songs’ Ian Penman imagined in 
his epochal piece on Tricky’s Mcocinquaye. Maxinquaye would be a 
reference point here, as would Pole - like both these artists, Burial 
conjures audio-spectres out of crackle, foregrounding rather than 
repressing sound’s accidental materialities. Tricky and Pole’s 
‘cracklology’ was a further development of dub’s materialist sorcery in 
which ‘the seam of its recording was turned inside out for us to hear and 
exult in’ (Penman). But rather than the hydroponic heat of Tricky’s 
Bristol or the dank caverns of Pole’s Berlin, Burial’s sound evokes what 
the press release calls a ‘near future South London underwater. You can 
never tell if the crackle is the burning static off pirate radio, or the 
tropical downpour of the submerged city out of the window.’ 

Near future, maybe...But listening to Burial as I walk through damp 
and drizzly South London streets in this abortive Spring, it strikes me 
that the LP is very London Now - which is to say, it suggests a city 
haunted not only by the past but by lost futures. It seems to have less to 
do with a near future than with the tantalising ache of a future just out 
of reach. Burial is haunted by what once was, what could have been, and 
- most keeningly - what could still happen. The album is like the faded 
ten year-old tag of a kid whose Rave dreams have been crushed by a 
series of dead end jobs. 

Burial is an elegy for the hardcore continuum, a Memories From the 
Haunted Ballroom for the Rave generation. It is like walking into the 
abandoned spaces once carnivalised by Raves and finding them returned 
to depopulated dereliction. Muted air horns flare like the ghosts of Raves 
past. Broken glass cracks underfoot. MDMA flashbacks bring London to 
unlife in the way that hallucinogens brought demons crawling out of the 
subways in Jacob’s Ladder’s New York. Audio hallucinations transform 

the city’s rhythms into inorganic beings, more dejected than malign. You 
see faces in the clouds and hear voices in the crackle. What you 
momentarily thought was muffled bass turns out only to be the rumbling 
of tube trains. 

Burial’s mourning and melancholia sets it apart from dubstep’s 
emotional autism and austerity. My problem with dubstep has been that 
in constituting dub as a positive entity, with no relation to the Song or to 
pop, it has too often missed the spectrality wrought by dub’s subtraction- 
in-process. The emptying out has tended to produce not space but an 
oppressive, claustrophobic flatness. If, by contrast, Burial’s schizophonic 
hauntology has a 3D depth of field it is in part because of the way it 
grants a privileged role to voices under erasure, returning to dub’s 
phono-decentrism. Snatches of plaintive vocal skitter through the tracks 
like fragments of abandoned love letters blowing through streets 
blighted by an unnamed catastrophe. The effect is as heartbreakingly 
poignant as the long tracking shot in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) that 
lingers over sublime objects-become trash. 

Burial’s London is a wounded city, populated by ecstasy casualties on 
day release from psychiatric units, disappointed lovers on night buses, 
parents who can’t quite bring themselves to sell their Rave 12 inches at a 
carboot sale, all of them with haunted looks on their faces, but also 
haunting their interpas-sively nihilist kids with the thought that things 
weren’t always like this. The sadness in the Dem 2 meets Vini Reilly-era 
Durutti Column ‘You Hurt Me’ and ‘Gutted’ is almost overwhelming. 
‘Southern Comfort’ only deadens the pain. Ravers have become 
deadbeats, and Burial’s beats are accordingly undead - like the tik-tok of 
an off-kilter metronome in an abandoned Silent Hill school, the klak-klak 
of graffiti-splashed ghost trains idling in sidings. 10 years ago, Kodwo 
Eshun compared the ‘harsh, roaring noise’ of No U-Turn’s ‘hoover bass’ 
with ‘the sound of a thousand car alarms going off simultaneously’. The 
subdued bass on Burial is the spectral echo of a roar, burned-out cars 
remembering the noise they once made. 

Burial reminds me, actually, of paintings by Nigel Cooke. The morose 
figures Cooke graffitis onto his own paintings are perfect visual 
analogues for Burial’s sound. A decade ago, jungle and hip hop invoked 
devils, demons and angels. Burial’s sound, however, summons the ‘chain¬ 
smoking plants and sobbing vegetables’ that sigh longingly in Cooke’s 

painting. Speaking at the Tate, Cooke observed that much of the 
violence of graffiti comes from its velocity. There’s something of an 
affinity between the way that Cooke re-creates graffiti in the ‘slow’ 
medium of oil paints and the way in which Burial submerges 
(dubmerges?) Rave’s hyperkinesis in a stately melancholia. Burial’s 
dilapidated Afro NoFuturism does for London in the 00s what Wu Tang 
did for New York in the 90s. It delivers what Massive Attack promised 
but never really achieved. It’s everything that Goldie’s Timeless ought to 
have been. It’s the Dub City counterpart to Luomo’s Vocalcity. Burial is 
one of the albums of the decade. Trust me. 

Downcast Angel: Interview with Burial 

The Wire 286, December 2007 

With his self-titled debut LP last year, Burial established himself as an 
extraordinary sonic mythographer, a sound poet capable of articulating 
the existential malaise of an era and a place using only sampled voices, 
broken breakbeats and musique concrete sound effects. Burial was a 
vivid audio portrait of a wounded South London, a semi-abstract sound 
painting of a city’s disappointment and anguish. Burial’s was a sound 
saturated in dance music, but his unsequenced beats were too eccentric 
to dance to. His sound was too out of step to fit into dubstep, the genre 
his records were most likely to be filed under because they were released 
on Kode9’s Hyperdub label. Burial’s sound might have fallen between 
the cracks, but it wasn’t some eclectic melange of existing forms. What 
was most impressive about it - and no doubt one of the reasons that it 
was The Wire’s Record Of The Year for 2006 - was the consistency of its 
sonic concept. There was an impersonal quality to Burial’s desolate 
elegies, a quality reinforced by his doing only a few interviews and 
refusing to allow a photograph of his face to be used in any promotion. 
Swarming rumours filled the hype-vacuum. Many didn’t believe he 
actually existed, attributing the record’s production to Basic Channel, 
The Bug, Kode9 himself - a massive backhanded compliment to how 
fully realised Burial’s (syn)aesthetic was. In fact, his sound has been 
gestating slowly, semi-secretly, for at least half a decade. The tracks on 
the first album had been selected from recordings Burial had made since 
2001. His first appearance on vinyl was the track ‘Broken Home’ on 
Wasteland’s Vulture Culture Mix 2 in 2004. And the 12’ EP South London 
Boroughs, which trailed some of the most potent tracks from the first LP, 
followed a year later. 

Burial’s refusal to ‘be a face’, to constitute himself as a subject of the 
media’s promotional machine, is in part a temperamental preference, 
and in part a resistance to the conditions of ubiquitous visibility and 

hyper-clarity imposed by digital culture - ‘It’s like a ouija board, it’s like 
letting someone into your head, behind your eyes. It lets randoms in,’ he 
says of the internet. 

‘I’m just a well low key person,’ he admits. ‘I want to be unknown, 
because I’d rather be around my mates and family, but there’s no need to 
focus on it. Most of the tunes I like, I never knew what the people who 
made them looked like, anyway. It draws you in. You could believe in it 
more.’ Burial doesn’t DJ or play live, so photographs of him can’t even 
be surreptitiously taken and circulated. ‘I just want to be in a symbol, a 
tune, the name of a tune,’ he explains. ‘It’s not like it’s a new thing. It’s 
one of the old underground ways and it’s easier.’ Burial is more sensitive 
than most to the way in which people are shaped by impersonal forces. 
‘When you are young you are pushed around by forces that are nothing 
to do with you,’ he says. ‘You’re lost; most of the time you don’t 
understand what’s going on with yourself, with anything.’ He knows that 
his sound does not come from anything with a face. 

Without being chauvinistic, Burial is fiercely loyal to the British 
Hardcore continuum from which his sound has emerged. ‘If you’re well 
into tunes, your life starts to weave around them,’ he says. ‘I’d rather 
hear a tune about real life, about the UK, than some US hip-hop ‘I’m in 
the club with your girl’-type thing. I love R&B tunes and vocals but I like 
hearing things that are true to the UK, like drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep. 
Once you’ve heard that underground music in your life, other stuff just 
sounds like a fucking advert, imported.’ Indeed, one track on his new 
album Untrue is called ‘UK’; another, one of the most sorrowful, is called 
‘Raver’. Burial’s London seems to be a city populated by dejected Ravers, 
returning to the sites of former revels and finding them derelict, forced 
to contrast the quotidian compromises of their post-Rave life with the 
collective ecstasy they once lived out. Burial’s is a re-dreaming of the 
past, a condensation of relics of abandoned genres into an oneiric 
montage. His sound is a work of mourning rather than of melancholia, 
because he still longs for the lost object, still refuses to abandon the hope 
that it will return. ‘A lot of those old tunes I put on at night and I hear 
something in the tune that makes me feel sad,’ he says. ‘A few of my 
favourite producers and DJs are dead now too - and I hear this hope in 
all those old tracks, trying to unite the UK. But they couldn’t, because 
the UK was changing in a different direction, away from us. Maybe the 

feeling of the UK in clubs and stuff back then, it wasn’t as artificial, self- 
aware or created by the Internet. It was more rumour, underground 
folklore. Anyone could go into the night and they had to seek it out. 
Because you could see it in people, you could see it in their eyes. Those 
Ravers were at the edge at their lives, they weren’t running ahead or 
falling behind, they were just right there and the tunes meant 
everything. In the 90s you could feel that it had been taken away from 
them. In club culture, it all became like superclubs, magazines, Trance, 
commercialised. All these designer bars would be trying to be like clubs. 
It all got just taken. So it just went militant, underground from that 
point. That era is gone. Now there’s less danger, less sacrifice, less 
journey to find something. You can’t hide, the media clocks everything.’ 
He checks his pessimism: ‘But [dubstep nights] DMZ and FWD have that 
deep atmosphere and real feeling. The true underground is still strong, I 
hear good new tunes all the time.’ 

After a statement as definitive as his first LP, it was difficult to 
imagine where Burial would go next. But Untrue substantially modifies 
the sound auditioned on Burial The most obvious difference from the 
first record is the amount and type of vocal on the new LP. His mentor 
Kode9 describes it as ‘weird soul’ and, if the reference points for the 
debut were early to mid-90s Rave and Jungle, the touchstones on Untrue 
are late 90s Garage and 2-step. The cut-up and pitchshifted voices - 
looped fragments of longing - make Untrue even more addictive and 
even more keeningly moving than Burial. Burial had in fact produced a 
whole album’s worth of material in another style - ‘more technical, all 
the tunes sounded like some kind of weapon that was being taken apart 
and put back together again’ - but he scrapped it. ‘I was worrying,’ he 
recalls, ‘I’d made all these dark tunes and I played them to my mum, and 
she didn’t like them. I was going to give up, but she was sweet, telling 
me, ‘Just do a tune, fuck everyone off, don’t worry about it.’ My dog 
died and I was totally gutted about that. She was just like, ‘Make a tune, 
cheer up, stay up late, make a cup of tea.’ And I rang her mobile 20 
minutes later and I’d made that ‘Archangel’ tune [on Untrue], and I was 
like, ‘I’ve made the tune, the tune you told me to make.” 

Burial’s treatment of voice has always been crucial to his sound. Too 
much dub-influenced music is content to simply erase the voice and turn 
up the echo, but Burial instinctively knew that dubbing is about veiling 

the song, about reducing it to a tantalising tissue of traces, a virtual 
object all the more beguiling because of its partial desubstantialisation. 
The drizzly crackle that has become one of his sonic signatures is part of 
the veiling process. Self-deprecatingly, he claims that he initially used 
the crackle to conceal ‘the fact that I wasn’t very good at making tunes’. 
But he is not so much influenced by dub as by the ‘vocal science’ 
developed by Jungle, Garage and 2-step producers. When he and his 
brothers would listen to darkside Jungle, Burial found himself 
increasingly drawn to the vocal tracks. ‘I’d love these vocals that would 
come in, not proper singing but cut-up and repeating, and executed 
coldly. It was like a forbidden siren. I was into the cut-up singing as 
much as the dark basslines. Something happens when I hear the subs, 
the rolling drums and vocals together. So when I started doing tunes, I 
didn’t have the kit and I didn’t understand how to do it properly, so I 
couldn’t make the drums and bass sound massive, so as long as it had a 
bit of singing in it, it forgave the rest of the tune. Then I couldn’t believe 
that I’d done a tune that gave me that feeling that proper records used 
to, and the vocal was the one thing that seemed to take the tune to that 
place. My favourite tunes were underground and moody but with killer 
vocals: ‘Let Go’ by Teebee, ‘Being With You Remix’ by Foul Play, Intense, 
Alex Reece, Digital, Goldie, Dillinja, EL-B, D-Bridge, Steve Gurley. I miss 
being on the bus to school listening to DJ Hype mixes.’ 

New Labour Britain is intoxicated by consensual sentimentality, 
hooked on disposable simulated emotion. With the ubiquity of TV talent 
shows, religiose emoting has become a fast track to media recognition, 
secular UK’s equivalent of sanctification and salvation. In this process, 
singing has become almost incidental - it’s lachrymose back stories that 
the media really hungers for. Burial’s strategy with singing is exactly 
contrary to this: he removes voices from biography and narrative, 
transforming them into fluttering, flickering abstractions, angels 
liberated from the heavy weight of personal history. ‘I was listening to 
these Guy Called Gerald tunes,’ he says. ‘I wanted to do vocals but I can’t 
get a proper singer like him. So I cut up a cappellas and made different 
sentences, even if they didn’t make sense, but they summed up what I 
was feeling.’ In the process of changing the pitch of the vocals, buried 
signals come to light. ‘I heard this vocal and it doesn’t say it but it 
sounds like ‘archangel’,’ says Burial. ‘I like pitching down female vocals 

so they sound male, and pitching up male vocals so they sound like a girl 
singing.’ This is apt, as angels are supposed to be without gender. ‘Well 
that works nice with my tunes, kind of half boy half girl,’ he enthuses. ‘I 
understand that moody thing, but some dance music is too male. Some 
Jungle tunes had a balance, the glow, the moodiness that comes from 
the presence of both girls and boys in the same tune. There’s tension 
because it’s close, but sometimes perfect together. I look like her. I am 

Kode9 describes the album as ‘downcast euphoria’, and that seems to 
fit. ‘I wanted to make a half euphoric record,’ Burial agrees. ‘That was an 
older thing that UK underground music used to have. Old Rave tunes 
used to be the masters of that, for a reason, to do with the Rave, half 
human endorphins and half something hypnotised by drugs. It was 
stolen from us and it never really came back. Mates laugh at me because 
I like whale songs. But I love them, I like vocals to be like that, like a 
night cry, an angel animal.’ 

Angels, again. On Untrue, Burial’s Ravers appear as downcast angels, 
beings of light exiled into the dull weight of the worldly. Untrue is like 
German director Wim Wenders’s Wings Of Desire (1987) relocated to the 
UK: an audio vision of London as a city of betrayed and mutilated 
angels, their wings clipped. But angels also hover above the hopeless and 
the abandoned here. ‘My new tunes are about that,’ Burial agrees, 
‘wanting an angel to be watching over you, when there’s nowhere to go 
and all you can do is sit in McDonalds late at night, not answering your 

As you might expect, Burial’s attunement to angels, demons and 
ghosts goes back to childhood. ‘My dad when I was really little,’ he says, 
‘sometimes he used to read me MR James stories. On the South Bank last 
year, I bunked off from my day job and I found a book of MR James 
ghost stories. The one that fucked me up when I was little was “Oh, 
Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. Something can betray how 
sinister it is even at a distance. Something weird happens with MR 
James, because even though it’s in writing, there’ll be a moment when 
the person meets the ghost, where you can’t quite believe what you’ve 
read. You go cold, just for those few lines when you glimpse the ghost 
for a second, or he describes the ghost face. It’s like you’re not reading 
any more. In that moment it burns a memory into you that isn’t yours. 

He says something like, “There’s nothing worse for a human being than 
to see a face where it doesn’t belong.” But if you’re little, and you’ve got 
an imagination which is always messing you up and darking you out, 
things like that are almost comforting to read. 

‘Also,’ he continues, ‘there is nothing worse than not recognising 
someone you know, someone close, family, seeing a look in them that 
just isn’t them. I was once in a lock-in in a pub and the regulars there 
and some mates started telling these fucked-up ghost stories from real 
life, maybe that had happened to them, and I swear if you heard them... 
One girl told me the scariest thing I ever heard. Some of these stories 
would stop a few words earlier than seemed right. They don’t play out 
like a film, they’re too simple, too everyday, slight. Those stories ring 
true and I never forgot them. Sometimes maybe you see ghosts. On the 
underground with an empty Costcutters plastic bag, nowhere to go, they 
are smaller, about 70 per cent smaller than a normal person, smaller 
than they were in life.’ 

Burial makes the most convincing case that our Zeitgeist is essentially 
hauntological. The power of Derrida’s concept lay in its idea of being 
haunted by events that had not actually happened, futures that failed to 
materialise and remained spectral. Burial craves something he never 
actually experienced firsthand. ‘I’ve never been to a festival, a Rave in a 
field, a big warehouse, or an illegal party,’ he says, ‘just clubs and 
playing tunes indoors or whatever. I heard about it, dreamed about it. 
My brother might bring back these records that seemed really adult to 
me and I couldn’t believe I had them. It was like when you first saw 
Terminator or Alien when you’re only little. I’d get a rush from it, I was 
hearing this other world, and my brother would drop by late and I’d fall 
asleep listening to tunes he put on.’ It was his older brother who made 
Rave a kind of ‘present absence’ in Burial’s life, a space to be filled with 
yarns and yearnings. ‘He loved tunes, Rave tunes, Jungle,’ Burial tells 
me. ‘He lived all that stuff, and he was gone, he was on the other side of 
the night. We were brought up on stories about it: leaving the city in a 
car and finding somewhere and hearing these tunes. He would sit us 
down and play these old tunes, and later on he’d play us ‘Metropolis’, 
Reinforced, Paradox, DJ Hype, Foul Play, DJ Crystl, Source Direct and 
Techno tunes.’ 

The Rave relics feed a hunger for escape. ‘I respect working hard but I 

dread a day job,’ asserts Burial. ‘Or a job interview. I’ve got a truant 
heart, I just want to be gone. I’d be in the kitchens, the corridors at 
work, and I’d be staring at the panels on the roof, clocking all the 
maintenance doors, dreaming about getting into the airducts. A portal. 
As a kid I used to dream about being put in the bins, escaping from 
things, without my mum knowing she’d put me out in the bins. So I’m in 
a black plastic bag outside a building and hearing the rain against it, but 
feeling all right, and just wanting to sleep, and a truck would take me 
away.’ A too quick psychoanalytic reading would hear this as a thinly 
coded wish to return to the womb - and Burial’s warm bass certainly 
feels enwombing - but that would be to ignore the desire to flee that is 
also driving this fantasy. Burial wants out, but he cannot positively 
characterise what lies beyond. ‘We all dream about it,’ he says. ‘I wish 
something was there. But even if you fight to see it, you never see 
anything. You don’t have a choice. You’d be on the way to a job, but 
you’re longing to go down this other street, right there, and you walk 
past it. No force on Earth could make you go down there, because you’ve 
got to traipse to wherever. Even if you escape for a second, people are 
on your case, you can’t go down old Thames side and throw your mobile 

But there are always flickers and flashes of the other side. After¬ 
images. ‘I used to get taken away to the middle of nowhere, by the sea,’ 
concludes Burial. ‘I love it out there, because when it’s dark, it’s totally 
dark, there’s none of this ambient light London thing. We used to have 
to walk back and hold hands and use a lighter. See the light, see where 
you were and then you’d walk on, and the image of where you’ve just 
been would still be on your retina. 

Sleevenotes for The Caretaker’s 
Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia 

May 2006 

Could it be said that we all now suffer from a form of theoretically pure 
anterograde amnesia? 

Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Christopher 
Nolan’s Memento (2000) have made the features of the condition - 
referred to, misleadingly, as short-term memory loss - well-known. In 
fact, sufferers do produce new memories, but they are not retained. 
There is no long-term encoding. This type of amnesia is anterograde 
rather than retrograde because it does not affect any memories formed 
before the onset of condition. Theoretically: in practice, it is likely that 
even the old memories will undergo some degradation. 

On Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia the album, a tendency in the 
Caretaker’s music has reached a kind of culmination. The theme was 
once homesickness for the past. Now, it is the impossibility of the 

Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom was a kind of replicant 
mnemonic implant, a false memory of the tearoom pop of the twenties 
and thirties. For those of us haunted by the lambent ache of A1 Bowlly’s 
croon in The Shining and Pennies From Heaven, that kind of Total Recall 
trip was irresistible. The ghosts were so glamorous, their bob haircuts 
and pearls glistening in the candlelight, their dance moves oh so elegant. 

An occulted reference might have been The Invention of Morel (an 
influence upon Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and therefore also upon 
The Shining (1980)), Adolfo Bioy Casares’ science fictional lovesong to 
Louise Brooks. Casares imagined a world we live in it where the spectres 
of the beautiful and the damned are preserved forever, their little 
gestures and banal conversations transformed, by repetition, into holy 
artefacts. The simulation machine on Morel’s island is film, of course, 
and who has not at some time wanted to do as Casares’ hero does and 

pass beyond the screen, so as to finally be able to talk with the ghosts 
you have for so long mooned over? It is the same temptation that Jack 
yields to in The Shining when he enters into the consensual hallucination 
of The Overlook. The Gold Room, in which the Scott Fitzgerald-era elite 
forever cavort in a ceaseless whirl of wit, cocaine and wealth, is 
perfectly heavenly. But you know what the price of the ticket to heaven 
is, don’t you Jack? 

Don’t you? 

It is that grave-damp, mildewed odour which the perfume and the 
preservative never quite covered up which has always made The 
Caretaker’s music uneasy, rather than easy, listening. Queasy listening, 
actually. It has never been possible to ignore the shadows lurking at the 
periphery of our audio-vision; the trip down memory lane was 
deliciously intoxicating but there was a bitter undertaste. A faint horror, 
something like the dim but insistent awareness of plague and mortality 
that must have nagged at the entranced-dancers in Poe’s ‘The Masque of 
the Red Death’. 

That’s not all. 

Something else was wrong. 

The sepia and the soft focus were photoshopped in, we knew that. These 
thick carpets and china tea-sets weren’t really there. And they never 
were, not for us. We were in a simulation of another’s mind’s eye. The 
mottled, honeyed, slurred and reverbed quality of the sound alerted us 
to the fact that this was not the object itself but the object as it is for 
someone else’s memory. 

On Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, things have worsened 
immeasurably. It is as if the Overlook simulation has run out of steam. 
The lights have gone out. The hotel is rotten, a burned out wreck long 
since gutted, the band is pale and very nearly translucent. 

The threat is no longer the deadly sweet seduction of nostalgia. The 
problem is not, any more, the longing to get to the past, but the inability 
to get out of it. You find yourself in a grey black drizzle of static, a haze 
of crackle. Why is it always raining here? Or is that just the sound of the 

television, tuned to a dead channel? 

Where were we? 

You suppose that you could be in familiar territory. It’s difficult to 
know if you’ve heard this before or not. There’s not much to go on. Few 
landmarks. The tracks have numbers, not names. You can listen to them 
in any order. The point is to get lost. That’s easy in this ill-seen, late 
Beckett landscape. You extemporise stories they call it confabulation - to 
make sense of the abstract shapes looming in the smoke and fog. 

Who is editing the film, and why all the jump-cuts? 

By now, very little a few haunting refrains lingering at the back of 
your mind separates you from the desert of the real. 

Let’s not imagine that this condition afflicts only a few unfortunates. 
Isn’t, in fact, theoretically pure anterograde amnesia the postmodern 
condition par excellence? The present - broken, desolated is constantly 
erasing itself, leaving few traces. Things catch your attention for a while 
but you do not remember them for very long. But the old memories 
persist, intact...Constantly commemorated ... I love 1923... 

Do we really have more substance than the ghosts we endlessly applaud? 

The past cannot be forgotten, the present cannot be remembered. 

Take care. It’s a desert out there... 

Memory Disorder: Interview with 
The Caretaker 

The Wire 304, June 2009 

‘I have always been fascinated by memory and its recall especially where 
sound is concerned,’ writes James Kirby via email. ‘Some things we 
remember easily and others we never seem to grasp. That idea was 
developed more on the boxset I did [2006’s Theoretically Pure 
Anterograde Amnesia] which was based around a specific form of amnesia 
where sufferers can remember things from the past but are unable to 
remember new things. To recreate that in sound was a challenge that I 
relished really. I realised the only way was to make a disorientating set 
with very few reference points. Fragments of melody breaking out of this 
monotonous tone and audio quagmire. Even if you listen over and over 
to all the songs you still can’t remember when these melodies will come 
in. You have no favourite tracks, it’s like a dream you are trying to 
remember. Certain things are clear but the details are still buried and 

Kirby’s description perfectly captures the unsettling experience of 
listening to Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. With the release of 
the six CD boxset, his project The Caretaker crossed over from being an 
exercise in atmospheric nostalgia to being a harrowing investigation of 
memory disorder. The box set is more like a sonic installation than a 
record, a work whose conceptual and textural richness puts much sound 
art to shame. The first three Caretaker records - Selected Memories From 
The Haunted Ballroom (1999), A Stairway To The Stars (2001) and We’ll 
All Go Riding On A Rainbow (2003) - swathed sampled British tearoom 
pop in a gaslit halo of reverb and crackle. On Theoretically Pure 
Anterograde Amnesia the effects and the surface noise take over, so that 
instead of a gently dub-dilapidated pop, there is an unnavigable murk, 
as abstract and minimal as a Beckett landscape. Echoes and 
reverberations float free of any originating sound source in a sea of hiss 

and static. If the earlier records suggested spaces that were mildewed but 
still magnificent - grand hotels gone to seed, long abandoned ballrooms 
- Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia invokes sites that have 
deteriorated into total dereliction, where every unidentified noise is 
pregnant with menace. The 72 tracks - all of them numbered rather than 
named - simulate the amnesiac condition, and the few fragments of well 
known tunes that occasionally flare in the gloom are intermittent islands 
of familiarity in a world that has become hostile and unrecognisable. 

‘Maybe it’s a dark humour, a kind of an audio black comedy,’ Kirby 
says of The Caretaker, but the solemnity of the project belies Kirby’s 
reputation as a prankster. His label V/Vm notoriously released a version 
of Lieutenant Pigeon’s ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ just after appearing on the 
cover of The Wire 176 under the headline ‘Harder! Faster! Louder!’, one 
of a series of manglings of mainstream music - tracks by Chris de Burgh, 
John Lennon and Elton John were also butchered and reassembled - that 
V/Vm issued. 

It is the focus on cultural memory that holds together all of Kirby’s 
work, including the V/Vm mash-ups. If the V/Vm (sub)versions of pop 
come from the brash side of postmodern pastiche, then The Caretaker is 
about the dark side of cultural retrospection. Theoretically Pure 
Anterograde Amnesia was in many ways an act of diagnosis of a cultural 
pathology. It might seem strange to describe a culture that is so 
dominated by past forms as being amnesiac, but the kind of nostalgia 
that is now so pervasive may best be characterised not as a longing for 
the past so much as an inability to make new memories. Fredric Jameson 
described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability ‘to 
focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of 
achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.’ The 
past keeps coming back because the present cannot be remembered. 
Memory disorders have recurred as themes in the popular cinema in the 
past decade or so: it is theoretically pure anterograde amnesia that 
afflicts Leonard, the lead character in Memento, while the massively 
successful Bourne films were preoccupied with memory loss. It is not 
surprising that anxieties about memory should continually surface in late 
capitalism, where, as Jameson and others have argued, perpetual 
economic instability and the rapid turnover of ephemeral images leads 
to a breakdown in any coherent sense of temporality. 

Kirby has approached the failure of the future from a different angle 
on another of his projects, 2006’s The Death Of Rave. Here, Rave is 
desubstantialised, stripped of all bass weight and drum propulsion, 
reduced to shimmer and haze. The tracks sound like they are being 
heard from outside a club: a horribly accurate sonic metaphor, perhaps, 
of our current state of exile from the future-shocking rate of innovation 
that dance music achieved in the 80s and 90s. ‘Yeah, that project really 
is in its infancy,’ Kirby says. ‘It came about as part of the V/Vm 365 
project where the aim was to make one audio track a day. I used to go 
Raves when I was younger, went through that whole explosion in 
electronic music from 1987 to around 1992-93 when it seemed like there 
was a new genre every single week. It was an amazing time in music to 
hear so many things happening and so many new possibilities opening 
up and to see and feel the energy of new music exploding on dancefloors 
and in clubs. I think The Death Of Rave is about the loss in that spirit and 
a total loss of energy in most electronic musics across the board. I feel 
sorry these days for people when I go to clubs as that energy isn’t there 
any more. I mean we have some so called very cool clubs in Berlin such 
as Watergate and Berghain, but you compare them to those back in the 
late 80s and early 90s in Manchester and it really is no comparison. Of 
course new things pop up but the difference now really is that if 
something explodes then before it can grow naturally people have 
strangled it to death with parodies online and often a scene or new style 
is dead before it even surfaces. House and Techno for instance took a 
long time to mature in Chicago and Detroit, now there is no time, once 
an idea is out of the rabbit’s hat it’s copied ad infinitum until the energy 
is gone. That is the key word - ‘energy’, it’s the one thing I have always 
been inspired by. For me those Death Of Rave tracks are about stripping 
Rave music from all its energy and spirit of fun - taking the audio from 
the Rave to the grave, if you like.’ The tracks are like energy flashbacks, 
frail figments of Rave reconstructed in a serotonin-depleted brain. 

Kirby’s other project The Stranger is organised around space rather 
than time. ‘The Stranger really is a darker version of The Caretaker,’ 
Kirby says, ‘and is its closest relative. The Stranger is about creating a 
physical location in sound. The last album for example [2008’s Bleaklow] 
was about the site of Bleaklow which is in the Peak District, it can be a 
grim place on the dark grey days but also beautiful on sunny days. 

Weirdly I had a few people get in touch with me who walk up there and 
they told me I captured the atmosphere perfectly and they used it as 
they were walking up there. I guess the odd glint of sunshine coming 
through that slate northern grey sky could be heard aurally.’ 

Kirby himself now lives in Berlin. ‘I moved to Berlin as it has the 
atmosphere and opportunities of the big city but also there’s a lot of 
space here to think more and also it’s easy to hide away on the dark 
streets here. Also it’s not as brutal as Manchester here, there is more of 
an openess as people don’t follow the media and news so much.’ Like 
The Stranger, though, The Caretaker remains a project rooted in 
Britishness - ‘it’s often only British music which has been used as source 
material.’ A parallel for The Caretaker’s excavation of pre-rock British 
pop is Dennis Potter’s musical drama for television, Pennies From Heaven. 
‘The use of audio in Pennies From Heaven is amazing along with its 
vibrancy and colour and of course the way Dennis Potter uses the 
sadness in the lyrics to keep telling the story is also special as these 
songs really are stories in themselves. John Clifford and Herk Harvey’s 
film Carnival of Souls (1962) was also a point of reference, the closing 
scenes in that film could even be audio from A Stairway To The Stars. I 
only saw that film after people had mentioned it to me. It works a lot 
that way, people will draw a line to something and I will then 
investigate that too.’ 

But of course the main initial impetus for The Caretaker was Kubrick’s 
The Shining. The name ‘the caretaker’ was taken from the role that Jack 
Torrance is condemned to forever play in the haunted Overlook hotel 
(‘you’ve always been the caretaker’, Torrance is told in one of the film’s 
most chilling moments). The conceit was simple: inspired by ‘the 
haunting sequences which feature the ballroom music which is playing 
only in Jack’s mind’, Kirby thought, why not make a whole album of 
material that might also have played in the Overlook? The Shining 
soundtrack includes two tracks by A1 Bowlly, the between-the-wars 
crooner whose songs features in many of Potter’s dramas, and Kirby 
sought out music in a similar vein. ‘I spent a lot of time searching out 
music from that era over a two or three year period and constantly 
started to play around with this source material. The interesting thing 
for me is the fact that most of that music is about ghosts and loss as it 
was recorded between both the world wars. It’s of a totally different era 

and had more or less been forgotten. Titles inspired new ideas as did the 
audio itself. I was fortunate as there was a great record shop near where 
I was in Stockport which was ran by two old guys and it specialised in 
78s. I would take in audio and ask then what was similar and they 
would scuttle off into the back of the shop and dig out some old 
catalogue from the 1930s and then pull out vinyls for me. It was an 
amazing resource sadly which is no longer there as one of the guys 
passed away and the other decided to close the shop. It was like a 
timewarp in there, like going back 30 or 40 years. They would hand 
write receipts and half of their stock was in this backroom you were 
denied access too. They had no idea what I was doing in there buying 
these records, though one of them told me one time ‘You were born in 
the wrong era as nobody is interested in this music who is your age.” 

Kirby has tuned to more recent history for an upcoming project. ‘It has 
been in my mind for a while to work on a Scragill/Thatcher project and 
this is the perfect time for this now as we approach the 25th anniversary 
of the Miners Strike. A lot has been written elsewhere about this conflict 
and its outcome and legacy, I have been scouring online and also have 
picked up some amazing footage to reprocess. It will link closely to The 
Caretaker in terms of its style as it will be like watching a half 
remembered version due to the processing. Some of the footage is totally 
ghostlike as it was recorded on VHS tapes from Miners back in 1984, so 
there is a real loss in quality and the sound fails to match the visuals. It’s 
looking like a dream version maybe. This will be mainly video work 
with also an incredibly limited vinyl release featuring audio from these 
videos and some exclusive audio work.’ This will fit into a series of re¬ 
stagings of the Miners Strike this decade, including Jeremy Deller and 
Artangel’s The Battle Of Orgreave and David Peace’s GB84. 

Kirby decided to close V/Vm down last year. ‘V/Vm was a vehicle for 
a lot of the work I have done but I think now as music consumers we 
have reached a point where labels are not so important, what is more 
important is delivery and availability of work.’ It is partly the 
possibilities for the online distribution of music, which Kirby has always 
been enthusiastic about, that led him to end V/Vm, but he ‘also found I 
was using the name V/Vm less and less when it comes to new works. I’ve 
been working on a very personal album in terms of moods I want to 
convey and I guess I may use my own name for that.’ In fact, the album, 

entitled History Always Favours The Winners, will come out under the 
name Leyland Kirby (‘Leyland is my grandather’s and my middle name. 
There are already too many James Kirby’s making music out there, if I 
believe Google. Now I’m only competing with a glamour model from 
Sheffield in the Google search.’) The Leyland Kirby music was made 
without the use of samples, but it has clearly been informed by Kirby’s 
time in the vaults. The tracks have an eerily untimely quality, a stately 
grace, a filmic scope. On ‘When Did Our Dreams And Futures Drift So 
Far Apart’, a doleful, echo-refracted piano desolately tracks through 
subdued electronic textures. ‘The Sound Of Our Music Vanishing’ is a 
more violent exercise in thwarted recall - here it as if the memories are 
rushing in and being obliterated at the same time, like Basinski if the 
tapes were being violently shredded instead of gently disintegrating. The 
epic ‘When We Parted My Heart Wanted To Die’, meanwhile, has a 
swelling, magisterial melancholy that recalls Angelo Badalamenti. 

The Caretaker project continues, however. ‘I have started to play 
shows finally as The Caretaker, usually I just like to let the music just 
creep out of the speakers as if it’s actually the venue playing the audio or 
that the sounds are in your own mind. I played in Athens last week in a 
pitch black room which worked well, maybe I can work some visuals 
into the live process but they would have to add to the audio and not 
distract the listening process. I am always of course interested in playing 
more relevant locations, so for instance Blackpool Tower would be 
amazing as the ballroom there is a great Victorian example and perfect 
for this particular audio recall.’ 

‘More than anything it’s all about research and mood when making 
the albums,’ Kirby replies when I ask him how he makes The Caretaker 
records. ‘Knowing the source material, maybe hearing a lyrical phrase 
which opens up an idea in my mind or indeed just reading something, 
such as with the Anterograde boxset which sparked off another idea and 
offered a different tangent and possibility. Without going into the 
specifics, things are reworked totally in a digital realm until the right 
mood surfaces. It’s very important too that I am in the right mood 
mentally to make that music which I think comes across certainly in the 
later albums, as opposed maybe to the first album. I am getting better at 
realising the days when I get the best results now when working on a 
specific project. It’s strange really because there is a full range of 

emotions in the music when I listen back, from loss to happiness, 
dislocation, regret, longing. Maybe it’s the source music itself which 
inspires this, but there are still for me a lot of personal moments in 
amongst those albums. Maybe even some of my own memories are 
intertwined in there.’ 

The word ‘research’ keeps coming up in Kirby’s discussion of The 
Caretaker project. ‘I have been doing a lot of online research in the last 
couple of years and also have been watching a lot of documentaries 
about people who suffer from brain disorders and memory problems. 
The last release [2008’s Persistent Repetition of Phrases] was based around 
a lot of conditions where the sufferer just repeats themselves, so the 
audio featured a lot of loops and microloops, it was a lot warmer and 
more gentle than the boxset release. Not all memories are necessarily 
bad or disturbing memories.’ On Persistent Repetition of Phrases, one of 
The Wire’s top ten records of last year, there was accordingly a return of 
the some of the prettiness that was absent from Theoretically Pure 
Anterograde Amnesia, but there was also an icy lucidity, an exquisite 
poise, about the record. It felt like a distillation and a consolidation. ‘The 
challenge now is to move the sound somewhere else brainwise and 
memory wise, that will take time to find the new direction. More 
research will have to be done before I find the best pathway for future 
exploration. I would also love to use this music on film as it would be 
perfect for this, so maybe a door will open somewhere.’ 

Home is Where The Haunt is: 
The Shining's Hauntology 

k-punk post, January 23, 2006 

1. The sound of hauntology 

Conjecture: hauntology has an intrinsically sonic dimension. 

The pun - hauntology, ontology - works in spoken French, after all. In 
terms of sound, hauntology is a question of hearing what is not here, the 
recorded voice, the voice no longer the guarantor of presence (Ian P: 
‘Where does the Singer’s voice GO, when it is erased from the dub 
track?’) Not phonocentrism but phonography, sound coming to occupy 
the dis-place of writing. 

Nothing here but us recordings... 

2. Ghosts of the Real 

Derrida’s neologism uncovers the space between Being and Nothingness. 

The Shining - in both book and film versions, and here I suggest a side¬ 
stepping of the wearisome struggle between King fans and Kubrickians 
and propose treating the novel and the film as a labyrinth-rhizome, a set 
of interlocking correspondences and differences, a row of doors - is 
about what lurks, unquiet, in that space. Insofar as they continue to 
frighten us once we’ve left the cinema, the ghosts that dwell here are not 
supernatural. As with Vertigo (1958), in The Shining it is only when the 
possibility of supernatural spooks has been laid to rest that we can 
confront the Real ghosts...or the ghosts of the Real. 

3. The haunted ballroom 

Mark Sinker: ‘ALL [Kubrick’s] films are fantastically ‘listenable’ (if you 
use this in sorta the same sense you use watchable)’ 

Where does 

The conceit of The Caretaker’s Memories from the Haunted Ballroom has 
the simplicity of genius: a whole album’s worth of songs that you might 
have heard playing in the Gold Room in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. 
Memories from the Haunted Ballroom is a series of soft-focus delirial- 
oneiric versions of 20s and 30s tearoom pop tunes, the original numbers 
drenched in so much reverb that they have dissolved into a suggestive 
audio-fog, the songs all the more evocative now that they have been 
reduced to hints of themselves. Thus A1 Bowlly’s ‘It’s All Forgotten Now’, 
for instance, one of the tracks actually used by Kubrick on The Shining 
soundtrack, is slurred down, faded in and out, as if it is being heard in 
the ethereal wireless of the dreaming mind or played on the winding- 
down gramophone of memory. As Ian Penman wrote of dub: ‘It makes of 
the Voice not a self-possession but a dispossession - a ‘re’ possession by 
the studio, detoured through the hidden circuits of the recording 

the singer’s voice 

4. In the Gold Room 

Jameson: ‘it is by the twenties that the hero is haunted and possessed...’ 

Kubrick’s editing of the film does not allow any of the polyvalencies of 
that phrase, ‘It’s All Forgotten Now’, to go un(re)marked. The 
uncanniness of the song, today and 25 years ago when the film was 
released, arises from the (false but unavoidable) impression that it is 
commenting on itself and its period, as if were an example of the way in 
which that era of beautiful and damned decadence and Gatsby glamour 
were painfully, delightfully aware of its own butterfly’s wing 
evanescence and fragility. Simultaneously, the song’s place in the film - 
it plays in the background as a bewildered Jack speaks to Grady in the 
bathroom about the fact that Grady has killed himself after brutally 
murdering his children - indicates that what is forgotten may also be 
preserved: through the mechanism of repression. 

I don’t have any recollection of that at all. 

Why does this Gold Room Pop, all those moonlight serenades and 
summer romances, have such power? The Caretaker’s spectralised 
versions of those lost tunes only intensifies something that Kubrick, like 
Dennis Potter, had identified in the pop of the 20s and 30s. I’ve tried to 
write before about the peculiar aching quality of these songs that are 
melancholy even at their most ostensibly joyful, forever condemned to 
stand in for states that they can evoke but never instantiate. 

For Fredric Jameson, the Gold Room revels bespeak a nostalgia for 
‘the last moment in which a genuine American leisure class led an 
aggressive and ostentatious public existence, in which an American 
ruling class projected a class-conscious and unapologetic image of itself 
and enjoyed its privileges without guilt, openly and armed with its 
emblems of top-hat and champagne glass, on the social stage in full view 
of the other classes’. But the significance of this genteel, conspicuous 
hedonism must be construed psychoanalytically as well as merely 
historically. The ‘past’ here is not an actual historical period so much as 
a fantasmatic past, a Time that can only ever be retrospectively - 
retrospectrally - posited. The ‘haunted ballroom’ functions in Jack’s 
libidinal echonomy (to borrow a neologism from Irigaray) as the place of 
belonging in which, impossibly, the demands of both the paternal and 
the maternal superegos can be met, the honeyed, dreamy utopia where 
doing his duty would be equivalent to enjoying himself...Thus, after his 
conversations with bartender Lloyd and waiter Grady (Jack’s frustrations 
finding a blandly indulgent blank mirror sounding board in the former 
and a patrician, patriarchal voice in the latter), Jack comes to believe 
that he would be failing in his duty as a man and a father if he didn’t 
succumb to his desire to kill his wife and child. 

White man’s burden, Lloyd...white man’s burden... 

If the Gold Room seems to be a male space (it’s no accident that the 
conversation with Grady takes place in the men’s room), the place in 
which Jack - via male intermediaries, intercessors working on behalf of 
the hotel management, the house, the house that pays for his drinks - 
faces up to his ‘man’s burdens’, it is also the space in which he can 
succumb to the injunction of the maternal super-ego: ‘Enjoy’. 

Michel Ciment: ‘When Jack arrives at the Overlook, he describes this 
sensation of familiarity, of well-being (‘It’s very homey’), he would Tike 

to stay here forever’, he confesses even to having ‘never been this happy, 
or comfortable anywhere’, refers to a sense of deja vu and has the feeling 
that he has ‘been here before’. ‘When someone dreams of a locality or a 
landscape,’ according to Freud, ‘and while dreaming thinks “I know this, 
I’ve been here before”, one is authorised to interpret that place as 
substituting for the genital organs and the maternal body.’ 

5. Patriarchy/hauntology 

Isn’t Freud's thesis - first advanced in Totem and Taboo and then 
repeated, with a difference, in Moses and Monotheism, simply this: 
patriarchy is a hauntology? The father - whether the obscene Alpha Ape 
Pere-Jouissance of Totem and Taboo or the severe, forbidding patriarch 
of Moses and Monotheism - is inherently spectral. In both cases, the 
Father is murdered by his resentful children who want to re-take Eden 
and access total enjoyment. Their father’s blood on their hands, the 
children discover, too late, that total enjoyment is not possible. Now 
stricken by guilt, they find that the dead Father survives - in the 
mortification of their own flesh, and in the introjected voice which 
demands its deadening. 

6. A History of Violence 

Ciment: ‘The camera itself - with its forward, lateral and reverse 
tracking shots... folio wing a rigorously geometric circuit - adds further to 
the sense of implacable logic and an almost mathematical progression.’ 

Even before he enters the Overlook, Jack is fleeing his ghosts. And the 
horror, the absolute horror, is that he - haunter and the hunted - flees to 
the place where they are waiting. Such is The Shining’s pitiless fatality 
(and the novel is if anything even more brutal in its diagramming of the 
network of cause-and-effect, the awful Necessity, the ‘generalized 
determinism’, of Jack’s plight than the film). 

Jack has a history of violence. In both novel and film of The Shining, 
the Torrance family is haunted by the prospect that Jack will hurt 
Danny...again. Jack has already snapped, drunkenly attacked Danny. An 

aberration, a miscalculation, ‘a momentary loss of muscular 
coordination. A few extra foot-pounds of energy per second, per second’: 
so Jack tries to convince Wendy, and Wendy tries to convince herself. 
The novel tells us more. How has it come to this, that a proud man, an 
educated man, like Jack, is reduced to sitting there, false, greasy grin 
plastered all over his face, sucking up everything that a smarmy 
corporate non-entity like Stuart Ulman serves up? Why, because he has 
been sacked from his teaching job for attacking a pupil, of course. That 
is why Jack will accept, and be glad of, Ulman’s menial job in Overlook. 

The history of violence goes back even further. One of the things 
missing from the film but dealt with at some length in the novel is the 
account of Jack’s relationship with his father. It’s another version of 
patriarchy’s occult history, now not so secret: abuse begetting abuse. 
Jack is to Danny as Jack’s father was to him. And Danny will be to his 

The violence has been passed on, like a virus. It’s there inside Jack, 
like a photograph waiting to develop, a recording ready to be played. 

Refrain, refrain... 

7. Home is where the haunt is 

The word ‘haunt’ and all the derivations thereof may be one of the 
closest English word to the German ‘unheimlich’, whose polysemic 
connotations and etymological echoes Freud so assiduously, and so 
famously, unravelled in his essay on ‘The Uncanny’. Just as ‘German 
usage allows the familiar (das Heimliche, the ‘homely’) to switch to its 
opposite, the uncanny (das Unheimliche, the ‘unhomely’)’ (Freud), so 
‘haunt’ signifies both the dwelling-place, the domestic scene and that 
which invades or disturbs it. The OED lists one of the earliest meanings 
of the word ‘haunt’ as ‘to provide with a home, house.’ 

Fittingly, then, the best interpretations of The Shining position it 
between melodrama and horror, much as Cronenberg’s History of 
Violence (2005) is positioned between melodrama and the action film. In 
both cases, the worst Things, the real Horror, is already Inside.... (and 
what could be worse than that?) 

You would never hurt Mommie or me, would ya? 

8. The house always wins 

What horrors does the big, looming house present? For the women of 
Horrodrama, it has threatened non-Being, either because the woman will 
be unable to differentiate herself from the domestic space or because - 
as in Rebecca (itself an echo of Jane Eyre) - she will be unable to take 
the place of a spectral-predecessor. Either way, she has no access to the 
proper name. Jack’s curse, on the other hand, is that he is nothing but 
the carrier of the patronym, and everything he does always will have 
been the case. 

I’m sorry to differ with you, sir. But you are the caretaker. You’ve always 
been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here. 

9. I’m right behind you Danny 

Metz: ‘When Jack chases Danny into the maze with ax in hand and 
states, ‘I'm right behind you Danny’, he is predicting Danny's future as 
well as trying to scare the boy.’ 

Predicting Danny's future Jack might be, but that is why he could 
equally well say ‘I’m just ahead of you Danny...’ Danny may physically 
have escaped Jack, but psychically...? The Shining leaves us with the 
awful suspicion that Danny may become (his) Daddy, that the damage 
has already been done (had already been done even before he was born), 
that the photograph has been taken, the recording made; all that is left is 
the moment of development, of playing back. 


(And how does Danny escape from Jack? By walking backwards in his 
father’s footsteps). 

10. The No Time of trauma 

Jack: Mr. Grady. You were the caretaker here. I recognise ya. I saw your 
picture in the newspapers. You, uh, chopped your wife and daughters up 

into little bits. And then you blew your brains out. 

Grady: That’s strange, sir. I don’t have any recollection of that at all. 

What is the time when Jack meets Grady? 

It seems that the murder - and suicide - has already happened, Grady 
tells Jack that he had to correct his daughters. Yet - not surprisingly - 
Grady has no memory - Bowlly’s ‘It’s All Forgotten Now’ wafting in the 
background - of any such events. 

‘I don’t have any recollection of that at all.’ 

(And you think, well, it’s not the sort of thing that you’d forget, killing 
yourself and your children, is it? But of course, it’s not the sort of thing 
that you could possibly remember. It is an exemplary case of that which 
must be repressed, the traumatic Real.) 

Jack: Mr. Grady. You were the caretaker here. 

Grady: I’m sorry to differ with you, sir. But you are the caretaker. 
You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been 

11. Overlooked 


To look over or at from a higher place. 
To fail to notice or consider; miss. 

Hauntological Blues: Little Axe 

k-punk post, October 3, 2006 

Since we’re talking about hauntology, we ought to have mentioned 
Beloved by now: not only Morrison’s novel, but also Demme’s astonishing 
film. It’s telling that Demme is celebrated for his silly grand guignol, The 
Silence of the Lambs, while Beloved is forgotten, repressed, screened out. 
Hopkins’ pantomime ham turn as Lecter surely spooks no-one, whereas 
Thandie Newton’s automaton-stiff, innocent-malevolent performance as 
Beloved is almost unberable: grotesque, disturbing, moving in equal 

Like The Shining - a film that was also widely dismissed for nigh on a 
decade - Beloved (1998) reminds us that America, with its anxious 
hankerings after an ‘innocence’ it can never give up on, is haunted by 
haunting itself. If there are ghosts, then what was supposed to be a New 
Beginning, a clean break, turns out to be a repetition, the same old story. 
The ghosts were meant to have been left in the Old World...but here 
they are... 

Whereas The Shining digs beneath the hauntological structure of the 
American family and finds an Indian Burial Ground, Beloved pitches us 
right into the atrocious heart of America’s other genocide: slavery and its 
aftermath. No doubt the film’s commercial failure was in part due to the 
fact that the wounds are too raw, the ghosts too Real. When you leave 
the cinema, there is no escape from these spectres, these apparitions of a 
Real which will not go away but which cannot be faced. Some viewers 
complain that Beloved should have been reclassifed as Horror...well, so 
should American history... 

Beloved comes to mind often as I listen to Stone Cold Ohio, the 
outstanding new LP by Little Axe. Little Axe have been releasing records 
for over a decade now, but, in the 90s, my nervous system amped up by 
jungle’s crazed accelerations, I wasn’t ready to be seduced by their 
lugubrious dub blues. In 2006, however, the haunted bayous of Stone 

Cold Ohio take their place alongside Burial’s phantom-stalked South 
London and Ghost Box’s abandoned television channels in hauntological 
Now. Since I received Stone Cold Ohio last week, I’ve listened to little 
else; and when I wasn’t immersed in Stone Cold Ohio I was re-visiting the 
other four Little Axe LPs. The combination of skin-tingling voices (some 
original, some sampled) with dub space and drift is deeply addictive. 
Little Axe’s world is entrancing, vivid, often harrowing; it’s easy to get 
lost in these thickets and fogs, these phantom plantations built on casual 
cruelty, these makeshift churches that nurtured collective dreams of 

Shepherds ... 

Do you hear the lambs are crying? 

Little Axe’s records are wracked with collective grief. Spectral 
harmonicas resemble howling wolves; echoes linger like wounds that 
will never heal; the voices of the living harmonise with the voices of the 
dead in songs thick with reproach, recrimination and the hunger for 
redemption. Yet utopian longings also stir in the fetid swamps and 
unmarked graveyards; there are moments of unbowed defiance and 
fugitive joy here too. 

I know my name is written in the Kingdom.... 

Little Axe is Skip McDonald’s project. Through his involvement with 
the likes of Ohio Players, the Sugarhill Gang and Mark Stewart, 
McDonald has always been associated with future-orientated pop. If 
Little Axe appear at first sight to be a retreat from full-on future shock - 
McDonald returning to his first encounter with music, when he learned 
blues on his father’s guitar - we are not dealing here the familiar, 
tiresome story of a ‘mature’ disavowal of modernism in the name of a re¬ 
treading of Trad form. In fact, Little Axe’s anachronistic temporality can 
be seen as yet another rendering of future shock; except that this time, it 
is the vast unassimilable trauma, the SF catastrophe, of slavery that is 
being confronted. (Perhaps it always was...) 

Even though Little Axe are apt to be described as ‘updating the blues 
for the 21st century’ they could equally be seen as downdating the 21st 
century into the early 20th. Their dyschronia is reminiscent of those 
moments in Stephen King’s It where old photographs come to (a kind of) 
life, and there is a hallucinatory suspension of sequentiality. Or, better, 
to the time slips in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, where contemporary 

characters are abducted back into the waking nightmare of slavery. (The 
point being: the nightmare never really ended...) 

There is no doubt that blues has a privileged position in pop’s 
metaphysics of presence: the image of the singer-songwriter alone with 
his guitar provides rockism with its emblem of authenticity and 
authorship. But Little Axe’s return to the supposed beginnings unsettles 
this by showing that there were ghosts at the origin. Hauntology is the 
proper temporal mode for a history made up of gaps, erased names and 
sudden abductions. The traces of gospel, spirituals and blues out of 
which Stone Cold Ohio is assembled are not the relics of a lost presence, 
but the fragments of a time permanently out of joint. These musics were 
vast collective works of mourning and melancholia. Little Axe confront 
American history as a single ‘empire of crime’, where the War on Terror 
decried on Stone Cold Ohio’s opening track - a post 9/11 re-channelling 
of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘If I had My Way’ - is continuous with the 
terrordome of slavery. 

When I interviewed Skip, he emphasised that Little Axe tracks always 
begins with the samples. The origin is out of joint. He has described 
before the anachronising Method-ology he uses to transport himself into 
the past. ‘I like to surf time. What I like to do is study time-periods - get 
right in to ‘em, so deep it gets real heavy in there.’ McDonald’s deep 
immersion in old music allows him to travel back in time and the ghosts 
to move forward. It is a kind of possession (recalling Winfrey’s claim that 
she and the cast were ‘possessed’ when they were making Beloved). Little 
Axe’s records skilfully mystify questions of authorship and attribution, 
origination and repetition. It is difficult to disentangle sampling from 
songwriting, impossible to draw firm lines between a cover version and 
an original song. Songs are texturally-dense palimpsests, accreted rather 
than authored. McDonald’s own vocals, by turns doleful, quietly enraged 
and affirmatory, are often doubled as well as dubbed. They and the 
modern instrumentation repeatedly sink into grainy sepia and misty 
trails of reverb, falling into a dyschronic contemporeanity with the 
crackly samples. 

In his landmark piece on Tricky (the piece, really, in which sonic 
hauntology was first broached), Ian Penman complained about Greil 
Marcus’ ‘measured humanism which leaves little room for the UNCANNY 
in music’. Part of the reason Little Axe are intriguing is that their use of 

dub makes it possible for us to encounter blues as uncanny and untimely 
again. Little Axe position blues not as part of American history, as 
Marcus does, but as one corner of the Black Atlantic. What makes the 
combination of blues and dub far more than a gimmick is that there is an 
uncanny logic behind the superimposition of two corners of the Black 
Atlantic over one another. 

Adrian Sherwood’s role in the band is crucial. Sherwood has said that 
Little Axe take inspiration from the thought that there is a common 
ground to be found in ‘the music of Captain Beefheart and Prince Far I, 
King Tubby and Jimi Hendrix’. In the wrong hands, a syncresis like this 
could end up as a recipe for stodgy, Whole Earth humanism. But 
Sherwood is a designer of OtherWorld music, an expert in eeriness, a 
kind of anti-Jools Holland. What is most pernicious about Holland is the 
way in which, under his stewardship, pop is de-artificialised, re¬ 
naturalised, blokily traced back to a facialised source. Dub, evidently, 
goes in exactly the opposite direction - it estranges the voice, or points 
up the voice’s inherent strangeness. When I interviewed Sherwood, he 
was delighted by my description of his art as ‘schizophonic’ - Sherwood 
detaches sounds from sources, or at least occults the relationship 
between the two. The tyranny of Holland’s Later ... has corresponded 
with the rise of no-nonsense pop which suppresses the role of recording 
and production. But ‘Dub was a breakthrough because the seam of its 
recording was turned inside out for us to hear and exult in; when we had 
been used to the “re” of recording being repressed, recessed, as though it 
really were just a re-presentation of something that already existed in its 
own right.’ (Penman) 

Hence what I have called dubtraction; and what is subtracted, first of 
all, is presence. Pierre Schaeffer’s term for a sound that is detached from 
a source is ‘acousmatic’. The dub producer, then, is an acousmatician, a 
manipulator of sonic phantoms that have been detached from live 
bodies. Dub time is unlive, and the producer’s necromantic role - his 
raising of the dead - is doubled by his treating of the living as if dead. 
For Little Axe, as for the bluesmen and the Jamaican singers and players 
they channel, hauntology is a political gesture: a sign that the dead will 
not be silenced. 

I’m a prisoner 

Somehow I will be free 

Nostalgia for Modernism: The Focus Group and 

Belbury Poly 

‘Myself and my friend Jim Jupp had been making music, independently 
and together for a while, and also obsessing over the same things - the 
cosmic horror of Machen, Lovecraft, the Radiophonic Workshop, weird 
folk and the occult. We realised that we wanted to put our music out, 
but also create our own world where we could play with all these 
reference points. Starting our own label was the only way to do it.’ 
Julian House is describing how he and his school-friend Jim Jupp came 
to found the Ghost Box label. 

Off-kilter bucolic, drenched in an over-exposed post-psyche-delic sun, 
Ghost Box recordings are uneasy listening to the letter. If nostalgia 
famously means ‘homesickness’, then Ghost Box sound is about 
unhomesickness, about the uncanny spectres entering the domestic 
environment through the cathode ray tube. At one level, the Ghost Box 
is television itself; or a television that has disappeared, itself become a 
ghost, a conduit to the Other Side, now only remembered by those of a 
certain age. No doubt there comes a point when every generation starts 
pining for the artefacts of its childhood - but was there something 
special about the TV of the 1970s which Ghost Box releases obsessively 

‘I think there definitely was something powerful about the children’s 
TV from that period,’ House maintains. ‘I think it was just after the 60s, 
these musicians and animators, film makers had come through the 
psychedelic thing and acid folk, they had these strange dark obsessions 
that they put into their TV programmes. Also, someone like Nigel Kneale 
had obviously come from a tradition of HP Lovecraft - 20th century 
science used as a background to cosmic horror and the occult. The 
themes he explored in the Quatermass series eventually found their way 
into Doctor Who, Children of the Stones , Sapphire and Steel If you look at 
the BBC Radiophonic workshop, people like David Cain also studied 
medieval music, and he did a great dark folky electronic album called 

The Seasons. And a few of Paddy Kingsland’s arrangements bring to mind 
Pentangle. It’s like there was this strange past/future thing which had 
come through psychedelia.’ 

The affect produced by Ghost Box’s releases (sound and images, the 
latter absolutely integral) are the direct inverse of irritating postmodern 
citation-blitz. The mark of the postmodern is the extirpation of the 
uncanny, the replacing of the unheimlich tingle of unknowingness with a 
cocksure knowingness and hyper-awareness. Ghost Box, by contrast, is a 
conspiracy of the half-forgotten, the poorly remembered and the 
confabulated. Listening to sample-based sonic genres like Jungle and 
early hip-hop you typically found yourself experiencing deja vudu or deja 
entendu, in which a familiar sound, estranged by sampling, nagged just 
beyond recognisability. Ghost Box releases conjure a sense of artificial 
deja vu, where you are duped into thinking that what you are hearing 
has its origin somewhere in the late 60s or early 70s: not false, but 
simulated, memory. The spectres in Ghost Box’s hauntology are the lost 
contexts which, we imagine, must have prompted the sounds we are 
hearing: forgotten programmes, uncommissioned series, pilots that were 
never followed-up. 

Belbury Poly, The Focus Group, Eric Zann - names from an alternative 
70s that never ended, a digitally-reconstructed world in which analogue 
rules forever, a time-scrambled Moorcockian near-past. This return to 
the analogue via the digital is one of the ways in which Ghost Box 
records are not straight-up simulations of the past. ‘We like to confuse 
the boundaries between analogue and digital. Jim uses a combination of 
analogue synths and digital technology. In the Focus Group stuff there 
are samples of old percussion albums and digital effects, electronic 
sounds generated on the computer and processed found sounds. I think 
it’s do with this space between what happens in the computer and what 
happens outside of it. The recording of space, real reverb/room sound 
and the virtual space on the hard drive. Like different dimensions.’ 

‘It was bang on 1980 when Fairlights and DX7s appeared in electronic 
music,’ Jupp points out. ‘I suppose that digital technology is a tipping 
point in culture in general, even in the way that television is made.’ Yet 
Belbury Poly’s sound relies on digital equipment. ‘At the heart of it is a 
computer and we don’t hide that fact. Having said that, I’m sitting in the 
studio now and it’s mostly analogue synths and a pile of acoustic 

instruments, what we do couldn’t exist without hip-hop and sampling 
culture and the access to cheap electronic instruments. It’s revisiting old 
textures and old imagined worlds with new tools.’ 

Jupp laughs when I suggest that there was a certain grain to 70s 
British culture that got smoothed away by 80s style culture gloss. ‘It’s 
almost as if we became totally Americanised, got our teeth fixed and had 
a proper wash. I was talking to someone the other day whose girlfriend 
can’t stand him watching old sitcoms, she always calls it grot TV. I know 
what she means. But maybe in TV, radio and records then there was a 
feel that was washed clean in the 80s when everything was angular, 
digital, American, upbeat and colourful.’ 

Ghost Box explore a sonic continuum which stretches from the 
quirkily cheery to the insinuatingly sinister. The most obvious 
predecessors lie in ‘functional music’, sounds designed to hover at the 
edge of perceptibility, not to hog centre-stage: signature tunes, incidental 
music, music that is instantly recognizable but whose authors, more 
often (self-)styled as technicians rather than artists, remain anonymous. 
The Radiophonic Workshop (whose two ‘stars’, Delia Derbyshire and 
Daphne Oram, became widely recognised only after their deaths) would 
be the obvious template. House agrees: ‘I think the key reference is the 
Radiophonic Workshop, which is wildly experimental (Britain’s 
electronic avant garde, the equivalent of GRM Pierre Schaeffer in France 
etc.) but it’s also incredibly evocative of radio and television with which 
we grew up. It’s got a sort of duality to it, it’s haunting in its own right 
but also serves as a memory trigger. I think this dim, half remembered 
aspect of old Hammer films, Doctor Who, Quatermass is important - it’s 
not like an I Love 1974 reminiscence. Rather than being just nostalgia, 
it’s triggering something darker, you’re remembering the strange ideas in 
these programmes, the stuff under the surface, rather than just knowing 
the theme tune. I think this is why Library music is such an influence - 
you listen to the albums divorced from context and it operates on an 
unconscious level, like musical cues for missing visuals. 

When I grew up Doctor Who episodes like The Sea Devils haunted me, 
the way slightly shaky monsters and sets have their own uncanny horror. 
The loud blasts of Atonal music. The first time I saw the Hammer film of 
Quatermass and the Pit really affected me. And those dimly remembered 
eastern European animations had a certain quality. Also, certain public 

information films and adverts.’ 

Ghost Box preside over a (slightly) alternative world in which the 
Radiophonic Workshop were more important than the Beatles. In a sense 
that is our world, because the Workshop rendered even the most 
experimental rock obsolete even before it had happened. But of course 
you are not comparing like with like here; the Beatles occupied front 
stage in the Pop Spectacle, whereas the Radiophonic Workshop 
insinuated their jingles, idents, themes and special FX into the weft of 
everyday life. The Workshop was properly unheimlich, unhomely, 
fundamentally tied up with a domestic environment that had been 
invaded by media. 

Naturally, Ghost Box have been accused of nostalgia, and of course 
this plays a part in their appeal. But their aesthetic in fact exhibits a 
more paradoxical impulse: in a culture dominated by retrospection, what 
they are nostalgic for is nothing less than (popular) modernism itself. 
Ghost Box are at their most beguiling when they foreground dyschronia, 
broken time - as on Belbury Poly’s ‘Caermaen’ (from 2004’s The Willows) 
and ‘Wetland’ (from 2006’s The Owl’s Map) where folk voices summoned 
from beyond the grave are made to sing new songs. Dyschronia is 
integral to the Focus Group’s whole methodology; the joins are too 
audible, the samples too jagged, for their tracks to sound like refurbished 

In any case, at their best, Ghost Box conjure a past that never was. 
Their artwork fuses the look of comprehensive school text books and 
public service manuals with allusions to weird fiction, a fusion that has 
more to do with the compressions and conflations of dreamwork than 
with memory. House himself talks of ‘a strange dream of a school 
textbook’. The implicit demand for such a space in Ghost Box inevitably 
reminds us that the period since 1979 in Britain has seen the gradual but 
remorseless destruction of the very concept of the public. At the same 
time, Ghost Box also remind us that the people who worked in the 
Radiophonic Workshop were effectively public servants, that they were 
employed to produce a weird public space - a public space very different 
from the bureaucratic dreariness invoked by neoliberal propaganda. 

Public space has been consumed and replaced by something like the 
third place exemplified by franchise coffee bars. These spaces are 
uncanny only in their power to replicate sameness, and the monotony of 

the Starbucks environment is both reassuring and oddly disorientating; 
inside the pod, it’s possible to literally forget what city you are in. What 
I have called nomadalgia is the sense of unease that these anonymous 
environments, more or less the same the world over, provoke; the travel 
sickness produced by moving through spaces that could be anywhere. 
My, I... what happened to Our Space, or the idea of a public that was 
not reducible to an aggregate of consumer preferences? 

In Ghost Box, the lost concept of the public has a very palpable 
presence-in-absence, via samples of public service announcements. 
(Incidentally one connection between rave and Ghost Box is the 
Prodigy’s sampling of this kind of announcement on ‘Charly’.) Public 
service announcements - remembered because they could often be 
disquieting, particularly for children - constitute a kind of reservoir of 
collective unconscious material. The disinterment of such broadcasts 
now cannot but play as the demand for a return of the very concept of 
public service. Ghost Box repeatedly invoke public bodies - through 
names (Belbury Poly, the Advisory Circle) and also forms (the tourist 
brochure, the textbook). 

Confronted with capital’s intense semiotic pollution, its encrustation of 
the urban environment with idiotic sigils and imbecilic slogans no-one - 
neither the people who wrote them nor those at whom they are aimed - 
believes, you often wonder: what if all the effort that went into this 
flashy trash were devoted to a public good? If for no other reason, Ghost 
Box is worth treasuring because they make us pose that question with 
renewed force. 

The Ache of Nostalgia: 
The Advisory Circle 

‘The Advisory Circle - helping you make the right decisions With its 
suggestions of a benevolent bureaucracy, The Advisory Circle was 
always the perfect name for a Ghost Box act. On Mind How You Go 
(2005), producer and vinyl archivist Jon Brooks produced a kind of 
Anglo-analogue pastoralism that is as affecting as anything that the label 
has released. In what has since been established to be the customary 
Ghost Box fashion, Brooks’s analogue synthesizer doodles - all the more 
powerful, somehow, for their unassuming slightness - gently trigger 
drifts down (false) memory lanes, inducing you to recall a mass 
mediated past which you never quite experienced. Mind How You Go 
frequently invokes that talisman of 1970s paternalism, the Public 
Information Film, and it’s perhaps no accident that the rise of Ghost Box 
has coincided with the emergence of YouTube, which has made public 
information films and other such street furniture of 1970s audio-visual 
experience widely available again. 

What Brooks captures extremely poignantly is the conflicted cluster of 
emotions involved in nostalgic longing. ‘Mind How You Go’ and ‘Nuclear 
Substation’ summon remembered sunlight from childhood summers even 
as their doleful melodies are laced with a deep sense of loss. Yet there’s a 
very definite but subdued joy here, too, in the way that a track such as 
‘Osprey’ achieves a kind of faltering soaring. It’s not for nothing that the 
word ache is often associated with nostalgia; and The Advisory Circle’s 
music positively aches with a sadness that is simultaneously painful and 
enjoyable. 201 l’s As The Crow Flies felt folkier than The Advisory Circle’s 
previous releases, with acoustic guitars creeping over the analogue 
synthesizers like ivy spreading over the frontage of a brutalist building. 
The album’s closing track, ‘Lonely Signalman’, brings these different 
textures together beautifully: its vocodered refrain (‘signalman lives all 
alone/ signalman is all alone’) is simultaneously playful and plangent, a 
combination that is typical of Brooks’s work. I asked Brooks about the 

roots of the exquisite sadness that colours his music. 

‘A lot of it stems from my childhood. Without wishing to go too far 
down the ‘tortured artist’ path, I will say that my upbringing was a 
cyclic period of safety, security, contentment, anxiety, despair and 
sadness. As an adult, I’ve managed to work through a lot of these 
childhood feelings and channel them into what I’m doing musically. 
Thankfully, I can now make sense of a lot of stuff that happened back 
then; I can balance this against any residual scars I might be left with. 
I’m not saying I’m glad that I had a turbulent childhood, but for what it’s 
worth, it has shaped my art, quite indelibly.’ 

A paradoxical impulse lies behind Brooks’s work. He is fascinated by 
functional culture - that which we don’t consciously hear or see but 
which shapes our experience of environments - yet the attention on 
what was background necessarily pushes it into the foreground. 201 l’s 
Music For Dieter Rams, a homage to the designer best known for his work 
with Braun released under Brooks’s name, was an attempt to bring 
functional music together with functional design. Rams’s slogan ‘less, but 
better’ could equally apply to the original conception of Ambient music. 
After all, What was the ambition for Ambient if not that music attain the 
unassuming ubiquity of many of Rams’s products - all those radios, 
coffee makers and calculators which were embedded into everyday life, 
their designer unknown to the general public? Perhaps for that reason, 
Brooks isn’t the first artist to dedicate music to Rams: Alva Noto devoted 
two wonderfully eerie tracks on his For 2 album to the designer. It’s 
those things lurking at the background of attention, things that we took 
for granted at the time, which now evoke the past most powerfully. 

‘With hindsight,’ Brooks says, ‘the fact that these things are so 
evocative of the past, accentuates and crystallises my interest in them; 
but actually, I’ve always been interested in things ‘in the background’ - 
for me, that’s where the really interesting stuff has always been. As a 
kid, I was equally fascinated by library music used on TV (or TV themes) 
as I was about pop music; things that we weren’t supposed to take any 
real notice of. I used to look out for TV test transmissions, for example, 
and of course Public Information Films. Open University broadcasts held 
the same fascination; these broadcasts weren’t targeted at an eight-year- 
old child, but I was drawn towards them nonetheless. I was also drawn 
to logos, branding and so forth. I remember being particularly entranced 

by certain record labels’ logos - Polydor, Decca and Pye were my 
favourites. I loved the way they looked on the records and would quite 
often sit at the turntable and watch them go round, as the record played. 
There was something very elegant about them. Again, these things were 
presented as ‘functional’, in their own way. So, the fascination was 
always there. It’s just stayed with me.’ 

Those objects and spaces are also functional. Is Brooks particularly 
fascinated by culture that operates in this ostensibly functional way? 

‘I am absolutely fascinated by that aspect. At the risk of being slightly 
tangential, taking the concept of Muzak as an example, I very much 
enjoyed reading Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music. This is a great example of 
bringing the background to the foreground, in the form of strictly 
‘functional’ music. It goes a step further in this respect than even Library 
music does. I have always been fascinated by the cultural aspect of this - 
how we can have small speakers installed in ceilings in shops and the 
music just filters through and no-one is really supposed to notice; they 
called it ‘non-entertainment music’ at the time. Muzak gained a really 
bad reputation in the 1970s, but if you go back and listen to some of the 
music that was produced for the system, you’ll find some very tight, 
compact arrangements hidden in there. Composers that are highly 
regarded by record collectors now, for example Sven Libaek and Syd 
Dale, did a lot of work for Muzak. In much the same way, I apply this 
fascination to domestic design or motorway service stations. Dieter Rams 
was interested in creating something that just worked, with elegance and 
simplicity. I love the fact that he wasn’t searching for fame with his 
designs, but now we can celebrate those designs publicly and hand him 
the spotlight, as it were, in much the same way as we have discovered 
composers like Sven Libaek.’ 

Someone Else’s Memories: Asher, 
Philip Jeck, Black To Comm, G.E.S., 
Position Normal, Mordant Music 

In 2009, an artist known as Asher released an album called Miniatures on 
the Sourdine label. The only information on the sleeve was the following 
terse statement: ‘recorded in Somerville, MA, winter 2007’. Rumours and 
mysteries proliferate in a data vacuum, and Miniatures puts the listener 
into a state of suspension and suspicion: what exactly are we listening 
to? Who made it? What does ‘making’ it mean in this context? And what 
sense of ‘recorded’ is being used? 

Let’s consider the audio facts, such as they are. Even here there is 
veiling - all the tracks are covered in a fog of crackle. What we hear is 
mostly piano, although occasionally strings can also be detected. The 
piano is contemplative, reflective, exquisitely sad: the lugubrious tempo 
seems to literalise the notion of longing. The haze of the crackle and the 
quietness of the playing mean that you have to ‘lean in’ to hear the 
music - played on ipod headphones, it practically disappears into the 
background noise of the street. 

How were the tracks made? At least two theories circulated online. 
One, the closest there seems to be to any official story, maintains that 
the tracks on Miniatures were all short sections recorded by Asher from 
the radio and then digitally looped. (If so, he should buy himself a radio 
with better reception.) The other theory is that the piano pieces were 
played by Asher on poor quality tape, then subjected to further processes 
of digital distortion to give the impression that they are found sound 
objects. The tracks’ unresolved status is not some dry conceptual riddle 
detracting from the experience of listening to them; instead, the enigma 
actually heightens the music’s fragile, fragmentary beauty, its uncanny 

Miniatures was one of a number of records from the 00s whose sound 
centred on crackle. Why should crackle resonate now? The first thing we 
can say is that crackle exposes a temporal pathology: it makes ‘out of 

joint’ time audible. Crackle both invokes the past and marks out our 
distance from it, destroying the illusion that we are co-present with what 
we are hearing by reminding us we are listening to a recording. Crackle 
now calls up a whole disappeared regime of materiality - a tactile 
materiality, lost to us in an era where the sources of sound have 
retreated from sensory apprehension. Artists like Tricky, Basic Channel 
and Pole started to foreground vinyl crackle at the very moment when 
records were becoming superseded. Back then, it was the CD that was 
making vinyl obsolete. Now, the MP3 can neither be seen nor touched, 
still less manipulated by the hand in the way that the vinyl record could 

The digital seems to promise nothing less than an escape from 
materiality itself, and the story of Wiliam Basinski’s 2002 album 
Disintegration Loops - a recording of tapes that destroyed themselves in 
the very process of their transfer to digital - is a parable (almost too 
perfect) for the switch from the fragility of analogue to the infinite 
replicability of digital. What we have lost, it can often seem, is the very 
possibility of loss. Digital archiving means that the fugitive evanescence 
that long ago used to characterise, for instance, the watching of 
television programmes - seen once, and then only remembered - has 
disappeared. Indeed, it turns out that experiences which we thought 
were forever lost can - thanks to the likes of YouTube - not only be 
recovered, but endlessly repeated. 

Crackle, then, connotes the return of a certain sense of loss. At the 
same time, it is also the sign of a found (audio) object, the indication 
that we are in a scavenger’s space. That is why crackle is a stock-in-trade 
of someone like turntable artist Philip Jeck. Jeck’s first record had 
appeared in 1999, but his work gained a new currency because of its 
convergence with what Burial and The Caretaker were doing. Jeck had 
been inspired by hearing mixers like Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and 
Grandmaster Flash in the 80s, but his montages reconceive DJing as the 
art of producing sonic phantasmagoria. Using Dansette turntables, FX 
units and records found in charity shops, Jeck defamiliarises the vinyl 
source material to the point of near-abstraction. Occasionally, 
recognizable fragments (60s rock, Mantovani-like lite classical kitsch) 
thrillingly bob up out of the whooshing delirium-stream. 

Jeck began the extraordinary 2008 version of Gavin Bryars’ The 

Sinking of the Titanic (which he performed in collaboration with Italian 
ensemble Alter Ego and Bryars himself) with nearly 14 minutes of 
crackle. In this audio-fog, threatening objects loom, barely perceived. As 
we listen, we come to distrust our own hearing, begin to lose confidence 
in our ability to distinguish what is actually there from audio 
hallucinations. Ominous strings and a solitary bell produce an 
atmosphere of quiet foreboding, and the ensemble - at first indistinct 
shadows in a Turner-esque squall - only gradually emerge from the 
cloud of crepitation. Here, as in Asher’s Miniatures, crackle suggests radio 
static. The sinking of the Titanic in fact prompted the first use of wireless 
in sea rescue. As Bryars points out in his sleevenotes, Marconi had 
conceived of telegraphy as a spectral science. He ‘became convinced that 
sounds once generated never die, they simply become fainter and fainter 
until we no longer perceive them. Marconi’s hope was to develop 
sufficiently sensitive equipment, extraordinarily powerful and selective 
filters I suppose, to pick up and hear these past sounds. Ultimately, he 
hoped to be able hear Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount.’ 

Jeck has referred to the sonic sources he uses as ‘fragments of 
memory, triggering associations’ but it is crucial that the memories are 
not necessarily his; the effect is sometimes like sifting through a box of 
slides, photographs and postcards from anonymous people, long gone. 
This same feeling of coming upon other people’s orphaned memories 
could be heard in the 2009 album Circulations by G.E.S. (Gesellschaft zur 
Emanzipation des Samples/ Society For The Emancipation Of Sampling). 
There is some mystery about who is behind G.E.S., but the project 
appears to be a front for genre-hopping dilettante Jan Jelinek, best 
known for his Loop-finding Jazz Records, which constructed a version of 
minimal Techno out of minuscule jazz samples; Jelinek has also 
produced microhouse under the name Farben and Ambient as Gramm. 
G.E.S.’s idea was to take micro-samples, loop and collage them, play 
them in public spaces, and record the results. Would the ordinary laws of 
copyright apply if music was sampled in these conditions? The tracks are 
like unsigned audio-postcards, recorded sometimes in named places 
(Mount Zermatt and Hong Kong are mentioned in the track titles), 
sometimes in places we can only guess at, using the voices and 
background noises to orientate ourselves. ‘Birds Of Heraklion’ begins 
with distorted electronic pulses before being swept up by a backwards 

rush of very cinematic strings that sound like they might have come 
from a black and white film extolling the benefits of train travel. 
‘Orinoco, Bullerbii, (Crossfade) ’ is initially built from the violent 
juxtaposition of crazed bird noises with what could be a sample from 
some forgotten film noir or a highly strung melodrama, but it ends with 
echoes, and strange, abstract whistles. ‘Im Schilf’ puts one in mind of the 
kind of alien piping noises you would hear in an Oliver Postgate 
animation or an early Cabaret Voltaire tape experiment, while 
‘Farnballett’ and ‘Farnballett (In Dub)’ recall a Binatone tennis game 
having a HAL-like nervous breakdown. The random sounds, the passing 
conversations, make you feel like you are witnessing stray frames from a 
film no whole version of which exists anywhere. This sense that action is 
continuing beyond what we are hearing, together with the record’s 
travelogue-cosmopolitanism, remind me of nothing so much as the cold, 
dislocated beauty of Antonioni’s The Passenger. The closing track, ‘Schlaf 
(Nach Einfuhrung Der Psychoanalyse)’ - which sounds like windchimes 
on some dust-blown alien planet - is like a memory of a Cold War 
science fiction that never quite happened. What stops this being a dry 
exercise or a disparate melange is the inescapable sense of anonymous 
sadness which pervades the whole record. 

This same sense of depersonalised tragedy hung over Alphabet 1968, 
the 2010 album by Black to Comm, aka Marc Richter, the man behind 
the ‘death Ambient’ genre and the Hamburg-based Dekorder label. 
Richter mischievously described Alphabet 1968 - on which the only 
human voices are on field recordings at the edge of audibility - as an 
album of songs. What if we were to take Richter’s provocation seriously - 
what would a song without a singer be like? What would it be like, that 
is to say, if objects themselves could sing? It’s a question that connects 
fairy tales with cybernetics, and listening to Alphabet 1968, I’m fittingly 
reminded of a filmic space in which magic and mechanism meet: J F 
Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runner. The tracks on the album are 
crafted with the same minute attention to detail that the genetic 
designer and toymaker Sebastian brought to his plaintive automata, with 
their bizarre mixture of the clockwork and the computerised, the antique 
and the ultramodern, the playful and the sinister. Richter’s pieces have 
been built from similarly heterogeneous materials - record crackle, 
shortwave radio, glockenspiels, all manner of samples, mostly of acoustic 

instruments. Except on ‘Void’ - a steampunk John Carpenter-like track 
with susurrating voices conspiring in the background - the music does 
not feel very electronic. As with Sebastian’s talking machines, you get 
the impression that Richter has used the latest technology in order to 
create the illusion of archaism. This is a record in which you feel that 
you can smell the dust coming off the retrieved objects. But so intricately 
are these sonic palimpsests layered that it’s impossible to determine 
what Richter and his collaborators have played and what has been 
conjured from the archives. The sounds are treated, reversed and slowed 
down in a way that makes their original sources mysterious. There is a 
sense of subtle but constant movement, of sound shadows flitting in and 
out of earshot. 

Richter so successfully effaces himself as author that it is as if he has 
snuck into a room and recorded objects as they played (to) themselves. 
On the opening track, ‘Jonathan’, crackle, a field recording of drizzle and 
cut-aways to white noise set the scene for a pensive piano. Children’s 
voices can be heard in the distance, and it is like we are being ushered 
out of the human world into the mysterious world of objects-amongst- 
themselves, a world just adjacent to ours, yet utterly foreign to it. It is as 
if Richter has attuned himself to the subterranean raptures and sadnesses 
of objects in unoccupied rooms, and it is these ‘songs’ that he hears. It’s 
not for nothing that the theme of objects coming to life was taken up so 
often in cinema animation (for, as its name suggests, what is animation 
if not a version of this process?), and most of the tracks on Alphabet 1968 
could be tunes for cartoon sequences - the ‘song’ an object sings as it 
stirs itself into motion, or declines back into inertia. 

In fact, the impression of things winding down is persistent on 
Alphabet 1968. Richter has made an enchanted sound-world, but one 
from which entropy has not been excluded. It feels as if the magic is 
always about to wear off, that the enchanted objects will slip back into 
the inanimate again at any moment - an effect which only heightens the 
tracks’ poignancy. The labouring, looped double bass on ‘Rauschen’ has 
all the mechano-melan-choly of a phonograph winding down - or 
perhaps of one of Sebastian’s automata running out of power. On 
‘Trapez’, reverbed wind chimes create a gentle Narnian snowfall. As so 
often on this album, the track recalls a running-down music box - one 
parallel might be Colleen’s 2006 album Boites a Musique, except that, 

where Colleen restricted herself to actually using music boxes, Richter 
loops and sequences his sonic material so that it simulates clockwork. But 
it’s an uncanny clockwork, running to a crooked time. On ‘Amateur’ - 
with its hints of artificial respiration, as if the walls themselves are 
breathing - the piano loop seems bent out of shape. 

Entropy is everywhere in the work of Position Normal, an act whom 
Simon Reynolds once called ‘the godfathers of hauntology’, but it is a 
very English kind of entropy. In Position Normal’s music, it is like 
London has finally succumbed to the entropy that always threatens to 
engulf the city in Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius mythos. Except 
there’s something attractive about the deep day dreamy lassitude that 
reigns here: entropy isn’t a threat so much as a lysergic promise, a 
chance to uncoil, unwind, unspool. Gradually, you are made to forget all 
of your urgencies as your brain is lulled and lured into the sunny Sunday 
afternoon when all Position Normal tunes seem to take place. The allure 
of this indolent London was touched upon by a certain trajectory in 60s’ 
rock: the sunny daze of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’, The Small Faces 
‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’, The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘I’m 
Only Sleeping’. Yet this particular strand of Anglo-languor didn’t 
originate here, in the acid and weed reveries of rockers in repose. You 
can look even further back for antecedents, to moments in Great 
Expectations - the airless, inertial stasis of Satis House - or to Alice’s 
Adventures in Wonderland (especially well captured in the hookah-hazes 
and fugues of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 BBC television version). 

Position Normal’s London is a city far distant from the corporate gloss 
of busy/ business London as it is from the tourist London of pageantry. 
The tour guide for this anachronistic city would be the James Mason in 
The London That Nobody Knows, the 1969 film directed by Norman 
Cohen and based on the book by Geoffrey Fletcher. It’s a palimpsest city, 
a space where many times are layered. Sometimes, when you walk down 
an unfamiliar street, you might stumble into aspects of it. Street markets 
that you’d imagined had closed long ago, shops that (so you think) 
couldn’t possibly survive into the 21 st century, ripe old voices fit only for 
the Victorian music hall... 

Position Normal’s tracks are Dadaist dub-doodles, disarming in their 
seeming slightness. They feel like skits or sketches; 
unwilling to be seen taking themselves too seriously, but at the same 

time entirely lacking in knowing smirks. There’s a daydreamy quality to 
the way the music is constructed: ideas waft in but trail off 
inconclusively while still half-baked. It can be frustrating, at least 
initially, yet the effect is accretive and seductive. A Position Normal 
album comes off like an anglo -Fantasia scavenged out of charity shops, 
all the detritus of the English 20th century made to sing. For the most 
part, you are left to guess the sources of all the funny voices. Who are 
they, this cheery gang - children’s radio presenters, comedians, 
character actors, light entertainers, newsreel announcers, jazz trumpeters 
(mutes always at the ready), ragpickers, costermongers, chancers, idlers, 
thespians gone to seed, frothy coffee cafe proprietors...? And where have 
they come from - scratchy old shellac, unmarked tapes, soundtrack LPs? 
The tracks bleed into one another, and so do the albums, like failing 

It turns out that decaying memory is at the heart of Position Normal’s 
music. In an interview with Joakim Norling for Friendly Noise magazine, 
Position Normal’s Chris Bailiff has said that the roots of the PN sound lay 
in his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. ‘My dad went into hospital and had to 
sell the family home, I had to move out and whilst doing this I found so 
many old records of his and records that he bought for me. Nursery 
rhymes, documentaries and jazz. I didn’t want to throw anything away 
so took them with me. I started to listen to all of them and recorded on 
to tape my favourite sounds and made incredibly varied mix tapes. I 
then edited them down and down until there were what I suppose are 
called samples.’ It’s as if Bailiff was simultaneously attempting to 
simulate Alzheimer’s and counteract it. 

Position Normal can be fitted into the venerable English tradition of 
Nonsense. (Another Small Faces parallel: Stanley Unwin provided some 
of his trademark gobbledygook for Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, the album 
which included ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’.) 

This same sense of lyrical dementia is at work on Mordant Music’s 
2006 masterpiece Dead Air. Mordant explicitly affirm decay and 
deliquescence as productive processes, and on Dead Air it is as if the 
mould growing on the archives is the creative force behind the sound. 
The album sounds like an electro/Rave version of The Disintegration 
Loops, except what was disintegrating here was a moment in British 
broadcasting history. The loose concept behind the album was a dead 

television studio, and what’s crucial to its unnerving allure is the 
presence of former Thames TV continuity announcer Phillip Elsmore. 
There’s a lunatic calm about the way that Elsmore reading Baron 
Mordant’s Nonsense (best heard in its own right on his collaboration 
with Ekoplekz, eMMplekz). Listening to Dead Air is like stumbling into 
an abandoned museum 200 years into the future where old Rave tracks 
play on an endless loop, degrading, becoming more contaminated with 
each repetition; or like being stranded in deep space, picking up fading 
radio signals from a far distant earth to which you will never return; or 
like memory itself re-imagined as an oneiric television studio, where 
fondly recalled continuity announcers, drifting in and out of audibility, 
narrate your nightmares in reassuring tones. 

‘Old Sunlight From Other Times and Other 
Lives’: John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies 

k-punk post, June 19, 2006 

He was in the market crowds, wearing a shabby brown suit. Trying to 
find me through all the years. My ghost coming home. How do you get 
home through all the years? No passport, no photo possible. No 
resemblance to anyone living or dead. Tenderly peering into windows 

John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies is a welcome addition to this decade’s 
rich cache of hauntological releases. 

Foxx’s music has always had an intimate relationship with film. Like 
sound recording, photography - with its capturing of lost moments, its 
presentation of absences - has an inherently hauntological dimension. It 
wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Foxx’s entire musical career has 
been about relating the hauntology of the visual with the hauntology of 
sound, transposing the eerie calmness and stillness of photography and 
painting onto the passional agitation of rock. 

In the case of Tiny Colour Movies, the relationship between the visual 
and the sonic is an explicit motivating factor. The inspiration for the 
album was the film collection of Arnold Weizcs-Bryant. Weizcs-Bryant 
collects only films that are short - no movie in his collection is longer 
than eight minutes long - and that have been ‘made outside commercial 
consideration for the sheer pleasure of film. This category can include 
found film, the home movie, the repurposed movie fragment.’ The album 
emerged when, a few weeks after he attended a showing of some of 
Weizcs-Bryant films in Baltimore, Foxx found himself unable to forget 
‘the beauty and strangeness’ of Weizcs-Bryant’s movies - ‘juxtapositions 
of underwater automobiles, the highways of Los Angeles, movies made 
from smoke and light, discarded surveillance footage from 1964 New 
York hotel rooms’ - so he decided ‘to give in to it - to see what would 

happen if [he] made a small collection of musical pieces using the 
memory of those Tiny Colour Movies.’ 

The result is Foxx’s most (un)timely LP since 1980’s Metamatic. Tiny 
Colour Movies fits right into the out of joint time of hauntology. Belbury 
Poly’s Jim Jupp cites Metamatic as a major touchstone, and time has bent 
so that the influence and the influenced now share an uncanny 
contemporaneity. Certainly, many of the tracks on Tiny Colour Movies - 
synthetic but oneiric, psychedelic but artificial - resemble Ghost Box 
releases. This is an electronic sound removed from the hustle and bustle 
of the present. An obvious comparison for a track like the majestically 
mournful ‘Skyscraper’ would be Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, but, 
in the main, the synthetic textures are relieved from the pressure of 
signifying the Future. Instead, they evoke a timeless Now where the 
urgencies of the present have been suspended. Some of the best tracks - 
especially the closing quartet of ‘Shadow City’, ‘Interlude’, ‘Thought 
Experiment’ and ‘Hand Held Skies’ - are slivers of sheer atmosphere, 
delicate and slight. They are gateways to what Heronbone used to call 
‘slowtime’, a time of meditative detachment from the commotions of the 

I constantly feel a distant kind of longing. The longest song, the song 
of longing. I walk the same streets like a fading ghost. Flickering grey 
suit. The same avenues, squares, parks, colonnades, like a ghost. Over 
the years I find places I can go through, some process of recognition. 
Remnants of other almost forgotten places. Always returning. 

Tiny Colour Movies is a distillation of an aesthetic Foxx has dedicatedly 
explored since Ultravox’s Systems of Romance. Although Foxx is most 
associated with a future-shocked amnesiac catatonia (‘I used to 
remember/ now it’s all gone/ world war something/ we were 
somebody’s sons’), there has always been another trance-mode - more 
beatific and gently blissful, but no less impersonal or machinic - 
operative in Foxx’s sound, even on the McLuhanite Metamatic. 

Psychedelia had explicitly emerged as a reference point on Systems of 
Romance (1978) - particularly on tracks such as ‘When You Walk 
Through Me’ and ‘Maximum Acceleration’, with their imagery of 

liquifying cities and melting time (‘locations change/ the angles change/ 
even the streets get re-arranged’). There might have been the occasional 
nod to the psychedelia of the past - ‘When You Walk Through Me’ stole 
the drum pattern from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ for instance - but 
Systems of Romance was remarkable for its attempt to repeat psychedelia 
‘in-becoming’ rather than through plodding re-iteration. Foxx’s 
psychedelia was sober, clean-shaven, dressed in smartly anonymous 
Magritte suits; its locale, elegantly overgrown cities from the dreams of 
Wells, Delvaux and Ernst. 

The reference to Delvaux and Ernst is not idle, since Foxx’s songs, like 
Ballard’s stories and novels, often seemed to take place inside Surrealist 
paintings. This is not only a matter of imagery, but also of mood and 
tone (or, catatone); there is a certain languor, a radically depersonalised 
serenity on loan from dreams here. ‘If anything,’ Ballard wrote in his 
1966 essay on Surrealism, ‘Coming of the Unconscious’, ‘surrealist 
painting has one dominant characteristic: a glassy isolation, as if all the 
objects in its landscapes had been drained of their emotional 
associations, the accretions of sentiment and common usage.’ It’s not 
surprising that Surrealism should so often turn up as a reference in 
psychedelia’s ‘derangement of the senses’. 

The derangement in Foxx’s psychedelia has always been a gentle 
affair, disquieting in its very quietude. That is perhaps because the 
machinery of perceptual re-engineering seemed to be painting, 
photography and fiction more than drugs per se. One suspects that the 
psychotropic agent most active on/in Foxx’s sensibility is light As he 
explained in an interview from 1983: ‘some people at certain times seem 
to have a light inside them, it’s just a feeling you get about someone, it’s 
kind of radiance - and it’s something that’s always intrigued me - it’s 
something I’ve covered before in songs like ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘When 
You Walk Through Me’. I like that feeling of calm...It’s like William 
Burroughs summed it up perfectly - “I had a feeling of stillness and 

There is a clear Gnostic dimension to this. For the Gnostics, the World 
was both heavy and dark, and you got a glimpse of the Outside through 
glimmers and shimmers (two recurrent words in Foxx’s vocabulary). 
Around the time of Systems of Romance, Foxx’s cover art shifted from 
harsh Warhol/Heartfield cut/paste towards gentle detournements of 

Renaissance paintings. What Foxx appeared to discover in Da Vinci and 
Botticelli is a Catholicism divested not only of pagan carnality but of the 
suffering figure of Christ, and returned to an impersonal Gnostic 
encounter with radiance and luminescence. 

What is suppressed in postmodern culture is not the Dark but the Light 
side. We are far more comfortable with demons than angels. Whereas 
the demonic appears cool and sexy, the angelic is deemed to be 
embarrassing and sentimental. (Wim Wenders’ excruciatingly cloying 
and portentous Wings of Desire is perhaps the most spectacular failed 
contemporary attempt to render the angelic.) Yet, as Rudolf Otto 
establishes in The Idea of the Holy, encounters with angels are as 
disturbing, traumatic and overwhelming as encounters with demons. 
After all, what could be more shattering, unassimilable and 
incomprehensible in our hyper-stressed, constantly disappointing and 
overstimulated lives, than the sensation of calm joy? Otto, a conservative 
Christian, argued that all religious experience has its roots in what is 
initially misrecognised as ‘daemonic dread’; he saw encounters with 
ghosts, similarly, as a perverted version of what the Christian person 
would experience religiously. But Otto’s account is an attempt to fit the 
abstract and traumatic encounter with ‘angels’ and ‘demons’ into a 
settled field of meaning. 

Otto’s word for religious experience is the numinous. But perhaps we 
can rescue the numinous from the religious. Otto delineates many 
variants of the numinous; the most familiar to us now would be ‘spasms 
and convulsions’ leading to ‘the strangest excitements, to intoxicated 
frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy’. But far more uncanny in the ultra- 
agitated, present is that mode of the numinous which ‘come(s) sweeping 
like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest 
worship.’ Foxx’s instrumental music - on Tiny Colour Movies and on the 
three Cathedral Oceans CDs, and with Harold Budd on the Transluscence 
and Drift Music LPs - has been eerily successful in rendering this alien 
tranquillity. On Transluscence in particular, where Budd’s limpid piano 
chords hang like dust subtly diffusing in sunlight, you can feel your 
nervous system slowing to a reptile placidity. This is not an inner but 
Outer calm; not a discovery of a cheap New Age ‘real’ self, but a positive 
alienation, in which the cold pastoral freezing into a tableau is 
experienced as a release from identity. 

Dun Scotus’ concept of the haecceity - the ‘here and now’ - seems 
particularly apposite here. Deleuze and Guattari seize upon this in A 
Thousand Plateaus as a depersonalised mode of individuation in which 
everything - the breath of the wind, the quality of the light - plays a 
part. A certain use of film - think, particularly, of the aching stillness in 
Kubrick and Tarkovsky - seems especially set up to attune us to 
haecceity; as does the polaroid, a capturing of a haecceity which is itself 
a haecceity. 

The impersonal melancholy that Tiny Colour Movies produces is similar 
to the oddly wrenching affect you get from a website like Found Photos. 
It is precisely the decontextualised quality of these images, the fact that 
there is a discrepancy between the importance that the people in the 
photographs place upon what is happening and its complete irrelevance 
to us, which produces a charge that can be quietly overwhelming. Foxx 
wrote about this effect in his deeply moving short story, ‘The Quiet 
Man’. The figure is alone in a depopulated London, watching home 
movies made by people he never knew. ‘He was fascinated by all the 
tiny intimate details of these films, the jerky figures waving from seaside 
and garden at weddings and birthdays and baptisms, records of whole 
families and their pets growing and changing through the years.’ 

‘Here you see old sunlight from other times and other lives’, Foxx 
observes in his evocative sleevenotes for Tiny Colour Movies. To leaf 
through other people’s family photos, to see moments that were of intense 
emotional significance for them but which mean nothing to you, is, 
necessarily, to reflect on the times of high drama in your own life, and to 
achieve a kind of distance that is at once dispassionate and powerfully 
affecting. That is why the - beautifully, painfully - dilated moment in 
Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the camera lingers over talismanic objects that 
were once saturated with meaning, but are now saturated only with 
water is for me the most moving scene in cinema. It is as if we are seeing 
the urgencies of our lives through the eyes of an Alien-God. Otto claims 
that the sense of the numinous is associated with feelings of our own 
fundamental worthlessness, experienced with a ‘piercing acuteness [and] 
accompanied by the most uncompromising judgment of self¬ 
depreciation’. But, contrary to today’s ego psychology, which hectors us 
into reinforcing our sense of self (all the better to ‘sell ourselves’), the 
awareness of our own Nothingness is of course a pre-requisite for a 

feeling of grace. There is a melancholy dimension to this grace precisely 
because it involves a radical distanciation from what is ordinarily most 
important to us. 

He stood in the soft beams of sunshine diffused by the curtains, caught 
for a moment in the stillness of the room, watching the dust swirling 
slowly golden through patches of light that fell across the carpets and 
furniture, feeling a strange closeness to the vanished woman. Being 
here and touching her possessions in the dusty intimacy of these 
rooms was like walking through her life, everything of her was here 
but for the physical presence, and in some ways that was the least 
important part of her for him. 

Longing and aching are words that recur throughout Foxx’s work. ‘Blurred 
Girl’ from Metamatic - its lovers ‘standing close, never quite touching’ - 
would almost be the perfect Lacanian love song, in which the desired 
object is always approached, never attained, and what is enjoyed is 
suspension, deferral and circulation around the object, rather than 
possession of it - ‘are we running still? or are we standing still?’ On Tiny 
Colour Machines, as on Cathedral Oceans and the albums with Budd, 
where there are no words, this feeling of enjoyable melancholy is 
rendered by the minimally disturbed stillness and barely perturbed poise 
of the sounds themselves. 

I can detect tiny edges of time leaking through. I feel nothing is 
completely separate. At some point everything leaks into everything 
else. The trick is in finding the places. They are slowly moving. 
Drifting. You can only do this accidentally. If you set out to do it 
deliberately you will always fail. 

It is only when you remember, only then will you realise that you 
caught a glimpse. While you were talking to someone, or thinking of 
something else. When your attention was diverted. Just a hint, a 
glimmer, a shade. 

Much later, you will remember. Without really knowing why. 
Vague peripheral sensations gather. Some fraction of a long rhythm is 
beginning to be recognised. The hidden frequencies and tides of the 

city. Geometry of coincidence. 

Listening to Tiny Colour Movies, as with all of Foxx’s best records, one 
has a sense of returning to a dream-place. Foxx’s shifting or shadow city, 
with its Ernst-like ‘green arcades’ and De Chirico colonnades, is urban 
space as seen from the unconscious on a derive; an intensive space in 
which elements of London, Rome, Florence and other, more secret places 
are given an oneiric consistency. 

I lost myself in that city more than 20 years ago. 

Sleeping in cheap boarding houses. A ghost with leaves in his pocket 
and no address. The good face half blind. A nebula of songs and 
memories slipping in and out of focus. Someone told me he was there 
but it didn’t register at the time. The voice came unfocussed from all 
around. Still and quiet like the shadows of an ocean in the moving 

Indented text from John Foxx’s ‘Quiet Man’ and ‘Shifting City’ texts and the 
Cathedral Oceans booklet. 

Electricity and Ghosts: Interview with John Foxx 

k-punk post, September 23, 2006 

MF: Which films were most influential on you early on? 

JF: Oh, very cheap science fiction films mostly. There was one 
particularly memorable movie called Robot Monster, so bad it was 
surreal, it had the quality of a dream, an exceptional movie. 

I now think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, partly because it 
had no regard for plot or anything else recognizable as conventional 
cinema of the time. This of course made it an event of inestimable 
importance to me, because, as a child I took it all literally - swallowed it 
whole, like Alice’s potion. 

And like that potion, it allowed entry to an unexpected universe. One 
which had unfathomable logic and laws which were endlessly flexible. A 
deeply exhilarating experience. I still dream sequences from it, or rather 
I seem to have permanently incorporated sections of it into my dream 

Growing up with movies as a child and being subjected to them before 
I could understand the adult preoccupations and motivations involved in 
the plots, pitched me into conscripting these films as a personal 
grammar. I had no choice, so I ended up with this Lynchian reservoir of 
sequences that carried every dread and joy and everything in between. 

These events are still imbued with unfathomable, inexplicable, 
tantalizing mystery, because I couldn’t really understand them at all. It 
was hallucinogenic and vivid, and provided me with an image bank and 
a gorgeous range of emotional tones I still haven’t managed to exhaust. 

Much later, when I got to ‘Cinema’ - or the official critical view of it - 
the more intellectual, often French aspect. I didn’t recognise it at all. 

Later, I ended up enjoying this sort of perspective a little, but in a 
rather disengaged, sceptical way. To me, it seems a method of criticism 
which is often marvelously baroque and can be engaging, but has little 
to do with my own experience of Cinema. 

I can only deal with it as a marvelous fictional construct, like medieval 
religion or quantum physics - a consensual social hallucination 
developed by a priesthood. In the end it’s as tangential as my own 
individual one. 

But that very crude, improvisational, amateurish side of cinema or 
filmmaking, I continue to find deeply fascinating. Take for example Ed 
Wood’s films. He made them simply because he was in a place where it 
could be done. 

I think of Ed Wood as a sort of advanced naive artist. He was among 
the first to make cut-up movies. He achieved this by using props he came 
across in warehouses and stock footage he discovered in the film vaults 
of Hollywood cutting rooms, then he built movies around these 

This is the art of collage and sampling. It is art as found object, as 
coincidence, as accident, as Surrealism, as Dada, as Situationism. All 
made possible and motivated also by the dynamo of American 
opportunism, but with great love and inadequacy and tenderness. 

Ed Wood was doing, fifty years ago, what the avant garde are only 
now beginning to do with film. 

(This is also very similar to the way rock ‘n’ roll often manages to 
parallel or prefigure avant garde concepts, by arriving at them from a 
totally different direction. Pop is such a virile mongrel it’s capable of 
effortlessly demonstrating, realising, manifesting, absorbing, remaking 
any sort of academic intellectual concept. It can do this so well, it often 
makes any parallel or previous version appear weak or even redundant). 

An admiration for that sort of visceral, sensual, opportunistic, native 
intelligence led to an interest in, and respect for, home video and super- 
8 - very low grade domestic ways of making films - I suddenly realised 
there was a whole other world there, one which hadn’t been properly 
discussed, but as real, in fact more real and potentially at least as 
powerful, as official cinema. 

MF: The film collection you refer to in the sleeve notes to Tiny Colour 
Movies - you write about it very beautifully. Are there any plans for 
those films to be shown in the UK? 

JF: Thanks. I’d like to - there are some problems with these fragments, 

because they’re so small. They’re physically difficult things, and they’re 
unique irreplaceable and very fragile, so you can only ever show digital 
copies of them. But it would be interesting to do something like that. I’m 
beginning to look at some possibilities now, working with Mike Barker, 
who has accumulated a marvellous archive, and we’re discussing this 
with some film festivals. 

MF: I noticed you thanked Paul Auster in the sleeve notes, why was 

JF: Paul Auster has is very interesting to me, because I wrote this 
thing called ‘The Quiet Man’ years ago, in the 80s, in fact I’m still 
writing it. Then I read the New York Trilogy, and it struck so many 
chimes. It was as if I’d written it, or it was the book I should have 
written. I have to be very careful to find my way around it now. 

Such occurrences are simultaneously rewarding and terrifying. They 
illustrate the fact that there is something in the air, which is 
tremendously heartening after working alone for years, yet they scare 
you because it feels as if someone has published first, and therefore 
registered their claim to where you discovered gold. 

I simply wanted to acknowledge the effect, and the odd sort of 
encouragement of recognised themes, as well as a continuing parallel 
interest in the idea of lost movies and fragments MF: There’s a certain 
kind of London affect that’s interesting, of stillness, and the city being 
overgrown, which is sort of recurrent in your work - where’s that come 
from do you think? 

JF: When I first came to London it seemed a great deal like Lancashire, 
where I’d come from. But Lancashire had fallen into ruin. The factories 
had closed, the economy had faltered. We felt like the Incas after the 
Spaniards had passed. Helpless, nostalgic savages adrift in the ruins. 

I grew up playing in empty factories, huge places which were 
overgrown. I remember trees growing out of the buildings. I remember a 
certain moments of looking at it all and thinking what it would have 
been like when it was all working. What life might be like, if it were all 
working still. 

All of my family worked in mills and factories and mines. And all this 
was gently subsiding, spinning away. 

Coming to London, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might also fall into 
dissolution. Then I saw a picture a friend had. It was a realistic painting 
of what appeared to be a view over a jungle from a high place. 
Gradually you came to realise that it was a view of an overgrown city 
from a tower, then you realised that this panorama was from a ruined 
Centre Point and you could see Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, 
Charing Cross road in the undergrowth. It felt like a revelation. It 
manifested so perfectly this vision I’d had of everything becoming 
overgrown, an overgrown London. A vision of longing and nostalgia 
tinged with fear. 

I would often experience a feeling of stillness and wonder as I walked 
through certain parts of London. I often walked through empty buildings 
and neglected, overlooked places and they would replay that sensation 
very strongly. 

I went to Shoreditch, in 1982, and made a studio there. When we first 
went into the studio building it had trees growing out of the windows on 
the upper stories. It was very like Lancashire, that whole area was 
derelict, had been abandoned, because that had been the industrial bit of 
the East End. Now there was no-one there, it was empty. It gave me that 
calm drifting feeling of recognition. 

There was some kind of collective image of overgrown and abandoned 
cities at that time. Perhaps it’s always there. Such images were present 
in Ballard, Burroughs, Philip K Dick. In those science fiction authors 
writing about the near future - conducting thought experiments, 
exploring likely consequences and views of the unrecognised present, 
which I think is very valuable. They offer perspectives and meditations 
on our vanity and endeavours. As such they maintain continuity with a 
long line of imagery, from religious myths and folk stories to science 

MF: It seems to have a real unconscious resonance, this idea of 
overgrown cities, it’s obviously there in surrealist paintings, which seem 
to be a constant reference, especially in your early work - 

JF: Yes, there’s that side of it too. In science fiction films you often get 
those recurrent images, which I think are very beautiful, of someone 
walking through an abandoned city. 

We have accumulated a range of such images all along the line, from 
folk and fairytales, to the actual construction of follies and romantic 
overgrown gardens, to the truly dislocated, such as Piranesi’s ruins and 
prisons, to Max Ernst’s paintings, or Breughel’s Tower of Babel, or the 
background urban locations in Bosch, as well as De Chirico’s townscapes 
and shadows. 

Planet of the Apes has one of the most shocking and resonant - the end 
of original movie, where we see the Statue of Liberty tilted in the sand. 
A real jolt, the first time you see it. A modern take on Shelley’s 

The radiance I sometimes refer to occupies this sort of area. I often see 
people as if in a frozen moment and they seem to have an internal glow 
inside them. Their skin seems translucent and they carry their own time. 
I feel calm and distant and warm from this. It can happen in an instant. 
In very mundane urban situations. You realise you are not looking at a 
single person, but at a sort of stream or cascade. 

It happened yesterday in a supermarket. I happened to glance at a 
young woman who looked like a transfigured hidden Madonna. She 
wore jeans and a teeshirt, an ordinary woman. But equally, she was a 
continuity, a lovely genetic physical thread to other times, both previous 
and ahead and still unformed. She simply glowed. Quietly and 
unknowingly luminous. The Eternal Woman. 

MF: The sort of feelings you deal with are more abstract; it’s like you go 
to those states without reference to the way they’ve traditionally been 
coded, really. You often use the word ‘angelic’, or ‘angel’... 

JF: Yes, very perilous territory, especially since these terms have since 
been co-opted by New Agers. I’ll put on the grey suit to dispel all that. 

Many of these spring from what I think of as ‘thought exper-iments’ - 
things I employ all the time, as a tool to get at half buried or emerging 
realisations. If you’re at all interested, I’ll try to outline a few. 

Firstly, the idea interested me - still does - of parallel evolutions - 
imagine something that may have evolved alongside us, something we’re 
not quite aware of yet, that we haven’t yet discovered. 

That may include things which exist in other planes or by other 
means, or things which resemble human beings so well that we assume 

them to be human, but they may not be. Yet they live among us 
undetected - the possibility that other forms of life may have evolved 
alongside us, but invisible because of their proximity. 

‘Hiding in plain sight’ is a great idea, something that’s very interesting 
in itself - on one level connected with sleight of hand and parlour tricks 
and conmen, but on the other hand, very subtle, intuition led 
perceptions. It could give rise to situations that are tremendously 
moving, fragile, tender. Metaphorically very resonant. 

Another one - I’m also very interested in the concept of a singularity. 
An event that only happens once, or once every thousand or million 

There may be rhythms which extend over tens of millions of years and 
are therefore unrecognisable to us, except as single unconnectable and 
unexplainable events. 

But the fact that we have no context to fit them into doesn’t mean 
they don’t happen. 

Yet another thought experiments posits the concept of Angels as a 
connection between things. An entity that only exists between. A sort of 
web or connection. They arise purely as an intrinsic, invisible and 
unsuspected component of the evolution of the ecology that supports 
whatever they exist between. They cannot exist on their own. 

Many of us have these little incidents - everything from coincidences 
onward - things that we can’t explain using the references we commonly 

I’m very interested in those things, always have been. Through those 
odd things, we glimpse something that’s outside the way we usually look 
at the world, and realise there might be another way of looking at it, an 
alternate perception to the one we have, and I think that’s a very 
valuable possibility to keep hold of. The awareness that maybe there are 
gaps in our perception that we aren’t able to fill yet. 

MF: Yes, because I think one of the most powerful things - which 
comes out in Tiny Colour Movies but in retrospect has always been there 
- is that you’re able to deal with positive, affirmatory feelings that are 
eerie and uncanny, and possess a certain kind of calm serenity. 

JF: Good, somehow that’s always been a vital component of that sort 
of experience, for me. A sensation of utter calm and stillness. Miles away 
from any agitation. It seems deeply positive. 

It’s an opposite to the excitement you get from, say, rock and roll...I 
think in general we like to stir ourselves up in various ways, using art or 
using media or whatever, and I think it’s just as valid to move against 
the norm, and the norm at the moment is to speed everything up. 

I mean, that’s what we’re trying to attain, aren’t we, through media? - 
That awful maximisation of time and efficient transmission of 
‘information’. Some of this is economic - time equals money - and some 
is simply done because it can be done, and has become an unquestioned 

If you could time-jump to show the average TV ad of today to 
someone 20 or 30 years ago, they wouldn’t understand it. The ad would 
depend on the viewer’s perception speed and also on a series of recent 
references. Our parents simply weren’t fast enough, they hadn’t been 
accelerated as we have been by media and the pace of modern life, and 
they also don’t have the inculcated, busy reference chain. 

Acceleration is also kind of exciting and interesting, I mean I really 
enjoy it, sometimes - but it equally leads you to think ‘what happens if 
you do the opposite?’-it might be just as pleasurable and just as valid to 
do that. 

So, one of the things I want to try to do is work on the other end of 
this spectrum - see what happens when you slow things down. 

I was surprised when I was doing the first music for Cathedral Oceans, 
using echoes that were 30 seconds long, so the rhythms were 30 seconds 
between the beats. 

It was very interesting slowing down enough to work with that 
intuitively. You had to do it, you had to synchronise with the track in 
order to be able to work with it. And it’s very interesting what kind of 
state you get into - intense, yet calm and tranquil. A sort of trance state. 

MF: I think it’s particularly on the LPs with Harold Budd, where you 
get that sort of aching plateau, where you slow down so much that any 
peturbation has a massive effect really. 

Harold was one of the first people who got that right, I think. One of 
the very first to have sufficient courage to leave enough space in the 
music and not fill spaces unnecessarily. Not decorate. Takes an awful lot 
of quiet courage to do that. 

When this is done, it allows an alternative ecology to emerge - one 
based on events that are much less frequent. And that, of course, affects 

their significance. You are drawn to them in a sort of smiling fascination, 
rather than the usual pop music method of lapel grabbing bombardment. 

MF: It seems to be something similar to what you get in Tarkovsky 
films - where either people say ‘oh, this is too slow I can’t stand it’, or 
they enter into the slow time of the film and anything that happens 
almost becomes too much. 

JF: Exactly, you can concentrate on any event very thoroughly, when 
that mode of perception is made available. Events become stately and 
welcome and valued and significant, and their arrival and departure can 
be fully experienced. The lack of jostling allows that sort of elegant 
notional space to open up. 

It functions at the other end of the spectrum from commercial TV and 
cinema, and of rock & roll. Both ends can be equally interesting, I think. 

MF: It seems to me that you’ve always imposed the stillness and 
calmness of painting and photography or a certain type of film onto the 
agitation of rock, really. Certain kind of dreams - the dreams we’re most 
familiar with - are hyper-agitated, full of urgency etc, but there’s 
another type of dream quality you seem to get to where those urgencies 
are suspended and you’re out of that everyday life push-and-pull, really. 
I wondered - there seems to be a certain aching, or longing quality - 
these are words you seem to use a lot in your music... 

JF: Well, dreams are a very important component. I realised that it is 
not simply the image you present yourself with, in a dream, which is 
important - it’s also the emotional tone of the scene. You can see a 
cloud, but this will be accompanied by a sense of wonder or by a sense 
of dread, and it is that accompaniment which determines its meaning. 

The employment of these images and tones are some of the things that 
everyone shares, aren’t they? They’re composed of bits of unique 
personal events and references and memories, such as longings that you 
might have had when you’re a child. 

When your parents are away even for an hour it feel as though it goes 
on forever and you really deeply miss them - and the abstraction, the 
tone component of that just carries on through life. Gets applied to 
different situations. These longings - and all other emotional parts of the 
spectrum - join the repertoire of tones we carry and apply. Some 
moments last forever. 

MF: But there’s almost a positive side, almost an enjoyment of longing 

and ache. 

JF: Oh yes, where the observer part of you acknowledges an emotional 
connection with the rest. Simultaneously you feel as though you are very 
integrated, yet you are being gently pulled away from yourself. Gently 

MF: Isn’t the ‘emotionless’ quality of your music more to do with a 
certain kind of calm? 

JF: Yes, it’s quite a complex thing, a compound. There are states 
where there’s a sensation of time passing, things changing, knowing the 
world is changing, falling in on itself, and reforming. And you may even 
be in the process of doing just that yourself. 

But there are moments where you just stand by and watch it all, 
where you’re aware of it, in a moment that seems to go on forever. So 
it’s something of standing in a still place and watching the patterns in 
passing crowds and even in your own life. It can be a very powerful 

That stillness, and the maintenance of a quiet dignity in the face of 
insurmountable circumstances can be immensely moving to witness. 

It can be much more effective and moving if someone tells the story in 
an unemotional or undramatic way. You find that in Ishiguro. Remains of 
the Day or Never Let Me Go are good examples of that kind of writing, 
where the most important components remain unstated. The Leopard is 
suffused with, and is dependent on a variant of this. 

It’s also allied to a device used in different ways by Charlie Chaplin, 
Buster Keaton and Cary Grant. - An archetypical figure attempts to 
retain dignity in the face of the worldly chaos while remaining ever 
hopeful of romance. 

And with Ballard and Burroughs, you get an almost gentlemanly, 
middle class version of a similar sort of stance - mayhem of all kinds 
observed from a disengaged viewpoint. 

Another Grey World: Darkstar, 
James Blake, Kanye West, Drake and 
‘Party Hauntology’ 

‘It’s a really grey-sounding synth, really organic and grainy. We call 
them “swells” - where synthesisers start quite minimal and then develop 
into a huge chord, before progressing. I felt like it wouldn’t be right if 
we just carried on with that dayglo Hyperdub sound of a couple of years 
ago. I mean I love those songs, but it already feels like a lifetime away.’ I 
felt vindicated when I read these remarks of Darkstar’s James Young in 
an interview with Dan Hancox. When I first heard the album about 
which Young is talking - 2010’s North - the phrase that came to my 
mind was ‘Another Grey World’. The landscape of North felt like the 
verdant Max Ernst forest of Eno’s Another Green World become ash. 

. ..with winter ahead of us 

The depressive’s world is black and/ or white, (you only have to 
remember the covers of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Closer), 
but North does not (yet) project a cold world entirely swathed in snow. 
North is the direction that the album is heading towards, not a 
destination it has reached. Its landscape is colourless rather than black, 
its mood tentative - it is grey as in unresolved, a grey area. This is an 
album defined by its negative capability of remaining in doubts, disquiet 
and dissatisfactions that it unable to name. It is grey as in The Cure’s ‘All 
Cats Are Grey’ from Faith, a record that stood between the spidery 
psychedelia of Seventeen Seconds and the unrelieved darkness of 
Pornography. Yet North is ultimately too jittery to muster the glacial 
fatalism of Faith but what North has in common with The Cure’s great 
records is the sense of total immersion in a mood. It is a work that came 
out of method immersion: Young told Dan Hancox that, as they recorded 
North, the group had listened obsessively to Radiohead, Burial, the 

Human League and the first album by Orchestral Manouevres in the 
Dark. The record demands the same kind of involvement, which is 
perhaps why some found it unengaging. On a casual listen, the very 
unresolved quality of the tracks could seem simply undercooked. James 
Buttery’s vocals could come off as limp, anaemic. In addition, many were 
disappointed by Darkstar’s failure to provide an album full of the 
‘robotic 2-step’ that they had invented on ‘Aidy’s Girl is a Computer’. In 
fact, they made the robotic 2-step album but ditched it, dissatisfied with 
its lack of ambition. (This wholly completed album that was never 
released is one of several parallels with Burial.) ‘Aidy’s Girl is a 
Computer’ apart, if you heard North without knowing the history, you 
wouldn’t assume any connection with dubstep. At the same time, North 
isn’t straightforwardly a return to a pre-dance sound. It is more a 
continuation of a certain mode of electronic pop that was prematurely 
terminated sometime in the mid-80s: like New Order if they hadn’t 
abandoned the sleek cybernetic mausoleum that Martin Hannett built for 
them on Movement. 

Except, of course, that it is not possible to simply continue that 
trajectory as if nothing had happened. Darkstar acknowledge the present 
only negatively. It impinges on their music in perhaps the only way it 
can, as a failure of the future, as a temporal disorder that has infected 
the voice, causing it to stutter and sibilate, to fragment into strange 
slithering shards. Part of what separates Darkstar from their synthpop 
forebears is the fact that the synthesiser no longer connotes futurity. But 
Darkstar are not retreating from a vivid sense of futurity - because there 
is no such futurity from which they could retreat. This becomes clear 
when you compare the Darkstar cover of ‘Gold’ to the Human League 
original. It’s not just that one is no more futuristic than the other; it’s 
that neither are futuristic. The Human League track is clearly a 
superseded futurism, while the Darkstar track seems to come after the 

It’s this sense of living in an interregnum, that makes North so 
(un)timely. Where Burial made contact with the secret sadness 
underlying the boom, Darkstar articulate the sense of foreboding that is 
everywhere after the economic crash of 2008. North is certainly full of 
references to lost companionship: the album can be read as an oblique 
take on a love affair gone wrong. 

Our fate’s not to share.... 

The connection between us gone.... 

But the very focus on the love couple rather than the rave massive is 
itself symptomatic of a turn inward. In a discussion that Simon Reynolds 
and I had about North shortly after it was released, Reynolds argued that 
it was a mistake to talk as if rave was bereft of emotion. Rave was a 
music saturated with affect, but the affect involved wasn’t associated 
with romance or introspection The introspective turn in 21st century 
(post)dance music was therefore not a turn towards emotion, it was a 
shift from collectively experienced affect to privatised emotions. There 
was an intrinsic and inevitable sadness to this inward turn, regardless of 
whether the music was officially sad or not. The twinning of romance 
and introspection, love and its disappointments, runs through 20th 
century pop. By contrast, dance music since disco offered up another 
kind of emotional palette, based in a different model of escape from the 
miseries of individual selfhood. 

The 21st century has often felt like the comedown after a speed binge, 
or the exile back into privatised selfhood, and the songs on North have 
the jittery clarity of Prozac withdrawal. 

It’s significant that most of the digital interference on North is applied 
to James Buttery’s voice. Much of the vocal sounds as if it has been 
recorded on a shaky mobile phone connection. I’m reminded of Franco 
Berardi’s arguments about the relationship between informational 
overload and depression. Berardi’s argument is not that the 
crash caused depression, but the reverse: the crash was caused by the 
excessive strain put on people’s nervous systems by new informational 
technologies. Now, more than a decade after the crash and the 
density of data has massively increased. The paradigmatic labourer is 
now the call centre worker - the banal cyborg, punished whenever they 
unplug from the communicative matrix. On North, James Buttery, 
afflicted by all manner of digital palsies, sounds like a cyborg whose 
implants and interfaces have come loose, learning to be a man again, 
and not liking it very much. 

North is like Kanye West’s 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak with all 

the gloss removed. There is the same method melancholia, the same 
anchoring in early 80s synthpop, explicitly flagged in 808’s case by the 
cover design’s echo of Peter Saville’s sleeves for New Order’s Blue 
Monday and Power ; Corruption and Lies. The opening track ‘Say You Will’ 
sounds like it has been worked up out of the crisp synthetic chill of Joy 
Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ and the funereal drum tattoo of New Order’s ‘In 
A Lonely Place’. As with North, though, the 80s parallels are disrupted by 
the digital effects used on the voice. 808s and Heartbreak pioneered the 
use of Auto-Tune, which would subsequently come to dominate R&B 
and hip-hop from the late 00s onwards. In a sense, the conspicuous use 
of Auto-Tune - that is to say, its use as an effect, as opposed to its 
official purpose as a device to correct a singer’s pitch - was a 90s 
throwback, since this was popularised by Cher on her 1998 single 
‘Believe’. Auto-Tune is in many ways the sonic equivalent of digital 
airbrushing, and the (over) use of the two technologies (alongside the 
increasing prevalence of cosmetic surgery) result in a look and feel that 
is hyperbolically enhanced rather than conspicuously artificial. If 
anything is the signature of 21st century consumer culture, is this feeling 
of a digitally upgraded normality - a perverse yet ultra-banal normality, 
from which all flaws have been erased. 

On 808s and Heartbreak, we hear the sobs in the heart of the 21st 
century pleasuredome. Kanye’s lachrymose android shtick reaches its 
maudlin depths on the astonishing ‘Pinocchio Story’. This is the kind of 
Auto-Tuned lament you might expect neo-Pinocchio and android- 
Oedipus David from Spielberg’s AI (2001) to sing; a little like Britney 
Spears’s ‘Piece Of Me’, you can either hear this as the moment when a 
commodity achieves selfconsciousness, or when a human realises he or 
she has become a commodity. It’s the soured sound at the end of the 
rainbow, an electro as desolated as Suicide’s infernal synth-opera 
‘Frankie Teardrop’. 

A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile. This 
sadness concerns hedonism itself, and it’s no surprise that it is in hip-hop 
- a genre that has become increasingly aligned with consumerist 
pleasure over the past 20-odd years - that this melancholy has registered 
most deeply. Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on 
exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent 
hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously 

consume - they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted - 
Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available 
pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, 
aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is. This 
hedonist’s sadness - a sadness as widespread as it is disavowed - was 
nowhere better captured than in the doleful way that Drake sings, ‘we 
threw a party/ yeah, we threw a party,’ on Take Care’s ‘Marvin’s Room’. 

It’s no surprise to learn that Kanye West is an admirer of James Blake. 
There’s an affective as well as sonic affinity between parts of Kanye’s 
808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Blake’s 
two albums. You might say that Blake’s whole MO is a partial re¬ 
naturalisation of the digitally manipulated melancholy Kanye auditioned 
on 808s: soul music after the Auto-Tune cyborg. But liberated from the 
penthouse-prison of West’s ego, unsure of itself, caught up in all kinds of 
impasses, the disaffection languishes listlessly, not always even capable 
of recognizing itself as sadness. 

You might go so far as to say that the introspective turn reached a 
kind of conclusion with Blake’s 2013 album Overgrown. In his 
transformation from dubstep to pop, Blake had gone from digitally 
manipulating his own voice to becoming a singer; from constructing 
tracks to writing songs. The initial motivation for Blake’s approach to 
the song no doubt came from Burial, whose combination of jittery 2-step 
beats and R&B vocal samples pointed the way to a possible vision of 21st 
century pop. It was as if Burial had produced the dub versions; now the 
task was to construct the originals, and that entailed replacing the 
samples with an actual vocalist. 

Listening back to Blake’s records in chronological sequence is like 
hearing a ghost gradually assume material form; or it’s like hearing the 
song form (re)coalescing out of digital ether. A track such as ‘I Only 
Know (What I Know Now)’ from the Klavierwerke EP is gorgeously 
insubstantial - it’s the merest ache, Blake’s voice a series of sighs and 
unintelligible pitch-shifted hooks, the production mottled and 
waterlogged, the arrangement intricate and fragile, conspicuously 
inorganic in the way that it makes no attempt to smooth out the 
elements of the montage. The voice is a smattering of traces and tics, a 
spectral special effect scattered across the mix. But with Blake’s self- 
titled debut album, something like traditional sonic priorities were 

restored. The reinvention of pop that his early releases promised was 
now seemingly given up, as Blake’s de-fragmented voice moved to the 
front of the mix, and implied or partially disassembled songs became 
‘proper’ songs, complete with un-deconstructed piano and organ. 
Electronics and some vocal manipulation remained, but they were now 
assigned a decorative function. Blake’s blue-eyed soul vocals, and the 
way that his tracks combined organ (or organ-like sounds) with 
electronica, made him reminiscent of a half-speed Steve Winwood. 

Just as with Darkstar’s North, Blake’s turn to songs met with a mixed 
response. Many who were enthusiastic about the early EPs were 
disappointed or mildly dismayed by James Blake. Veiling and implying 
an object is the surest route to producing the impression of sublimity. 
Removing the veils and bringing that object to the fore risks de¬ 
sublimation, and some found Blake’s actual songs unequal to the virtual 
ones his early records had induced them into hallucinating. Blake’s voice 
was as cloyingly overpowering as it was non-specific in its feeling. The 
result was a quavering, tremulous vagueness, which was by no means 
clarified by lyrics that were similarly allusive/elusive. The album came 
over as if it were earnestly entreating us to feel, without really telling us 
what is was we were supposed to be feeling. Perhaps it’s this emotional 
obliqueness that contributes to what Angus Finlayson, in his review of 
Overgrown for FACT, characterised as the strangeness of the songs on 
James Blake. They seemed, Finlayson said, like ‘half-songs, skeletal place- 
markers for some fuller arrangement yet to come.’ The journey into 
‘proper’ songs was not as complete as it first appeared. It was like Blake 
had tried to reconstruct the song form with only dub versions or dance 
mixes as his guide. The result was something scrambled, garbled, 
solipsistic, a bleary version of the song form that was as frustrating as it 
was fascinating. The delicate insubstantiality of the early EPs had given 
way to something that felt overfull. It was like drowning in a warm bath 
(perhaps with your wrists cut). 

On Blake’s albums, there is a simultaneous feeling that the tracks are 
both congested and unfinished, and that incompleteness - the sketchy 
melodies, the half-hooks, the repeated lines that play like clues to some 
emotional event never disclosed in the songs themselves - may be why 
they eventually get under your skin. The oddly indeterminate - 
irresolute and unresolved - character of Blake’s music gives it the quality 

of gospel music for those who have lost their faith so completely that 
they have forgotten they ever had it. What survives is only a quavering 
longing, without object or context, Blake coming off like an amnesiac 
holding on to images from a life and a narrative that he cannot recover. 
This negative capability means that Overgrown is like an inversion of the 
oversaturated high-gloss emotional stridency of chart and reality TV pop, 
which is always perfectly certain of what it is feeling. 

Yet there’s an unconvincing - or perhaps unconvinced - quality to so 
much of mainstream culture’s hedonism now. Oddly, this is most evident 
in the annexing of R&B by club music. When former R&B producers and 
performers embraced dance music, you might have expected an increase 
in euphoria, an influx of ecstasy. But the reverse has happened, and it’s 
as if many of the dancefloor tracks are pulled down by a hidden gravity, 
a disowned sadness. The digitally-enhanced uplift in the records by 
producers such as Flo-Rida, Pitbull and is like a poorly 
photoshopped image or a drug that we’ve hammered so much we’ve 
become immune to its effects. It’s hard not to hear these records’ 
demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a 
depression that they can only mask, never dissipate. 

In a brilliant essay on The Quietus website, Dan Barrow analysed the 
tendency in a slew of chartpop over the past few years - including Jay-Z 
and Alicia Keys’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ Kesha’s ‘Tik Tok’, Flo Rida’s 
‘Club Can’t Even Handle Me Yet’ - ‘to give the listener the pay-off, the 
sonic money-shot, as soon and as obviously as possible’. Pop has always 
delivered sugar-sweet pleasure, of course, but, Barrow argues, there’s a 
tyrannical desperation about this new steroid-driven pop. It doesn’t 
seduce; it tyrannises. This, Barrow argues, is ‘a crude, overdetermined 
excess, as if pop were forcing itself back to its defining characteristics - 
chorus hooks, melody, “accessibility” - and blowing them up to 
cartoonish size.’ There’s an analogy to be drawn between this artificially 
inflated pop and Berardi’s discussion of internet pornography and drugs 
such as Viagra, which, similarly, dispense with seduction and aim 
directly at pleasure. According to Berardi, remember, we are so 
overwhelmed by the incessant demands of digital communications, we 
are simply too busy to engage in arts of enjoyment - highs have to come 
in a no-fuss, hyperbolic form so that we can quickly return to checking 
email or updates on social networking sites. Berardi’s remarks can give 

us an angle on the pressures that dance music has been subject to over 
the last decade. Whereas the digital technology of the 80s and 90s fed 
the collective experience of the dancefloor, the communicative 
technology of the 21st century has undermined it, with even clubbers 
obsessively checking their smartphones. (Beyonce and Lady Gaga’s 
‘Telephone’ - which sees the pair begging a caller to stop bugging them 
so they can dance - now seems like a last failed attempt to keep the 
dancefloor free of communicational intrusion.) 

Even the most apparently uncomplicated calls to enjoyment can’t fully 
suppress a certain sadness. Take Katy Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night’. On the 
face of it, the track is a simple celebration of pleasure (‘Last Friday 
night/ Yeah we maxed our credit cards/ And got kicked out of the bar’). 
Yet it’s not hard to hear something Sisyphean, something purgatorial, in 
the song’s evocation of a (not so) merry-go-round of pleasure that Perry 
and her friends can never get off: ‘Always say we’re gonna stop/ This 
Friday night/ Do it all again...’ Played at half-speed, this would sound as 
bleak as early Swans. David Guetta’s ‘Play Hard’ calls up a similarly 
interminable repetition. Pleasure becomes an obligation that will never 
let up - ‘us hustler’s work is never through/ We work hard, play hard’ - 
and hedonism is explicitly paralleled with work: ‘Keep partyin’ like it’s 
your job’. It’s the perfect anthem for an era in which the boundaries 
between work and non-work are eroded - by the requirement that we 
are always-on (that, for instance, we will answer emails at any hour of 
the day), and that we never lose an opportunity to marketise our own 
subjectivity. In a (not at all trivial) sense, partying is now a job. Images 
of hedonistic excess provide much of the content on Facebook, uploaded 
by users who are effectively unpaid workers, creating value for the site 
without being remunerated for it. Partying is a job in another sense - in 
conditions of objective immiseration and economic downturn, making 
up the affective deficit is outsourced to us. 

Sometimes, a free-floating sadness seeps into the grain of the music 
itself. On their blog No Good Advice, the blogger J describes the use of a 
sample from Kaoma’s 1989 track ‘Lambada’ on Jennifer Lopez’s 2011 hit 
‘On The Floor’: ‘The snatch of ‘Lambada’ functions as a buried-memory 
trigger, a sort of party hauntology that lends the song a slight edge of 
wistful, nostalgic sadness.’ There is no reference to sadness in the official 
text of the track, which is a simple exhortation to dance. So it’s as if the 

sorrow comes from outside, like traces of the waking world incorporated 
into a dream, or like the grief which creeps into all the embedded worlds 
in Inception (2010). 

‘Party hauntology’ might even be the best name for the dominant 21st 
century form of pop, the transnational club music produced by Guetta, 
Flo-Rida, Calvin Harris and But the debts to the past, the 
failure of the future are repressed here, meaning that the hauntology 
takes a disavowed form. Take a track like the Black Eyed Peas’ 
immensely popular ‘I Gotta Feeling’. Although ‘I Gotta Feeling’ is 
ostensibly an optimistic record, there’s something forlorn about it. 
Perhaps that’s because of’s use of Auto-Tune - there seems to 
be Sparky’s Magic Piano-like machinic melancholy intrinsic to the 
technology itself, something which Kanye drew out rather than invented 
on 808s and Heartbreak. In spite of the track’s declamatory repetitions, 
there’s a fragile, fugitive quality about the pleasures ‘I Gotta Feeling’ so 
confidently expects. That’s partly because ‘I Gotta Feeling’ comes off 
more like a memory of a past pleasure than an anticipation of a pleasure 
that is yet to be felt. The album from which the track comes, The E.N.D. 
(The Energy Never Dies) was - like its predecessor, The Beginning - so 
immersed in Rave that it effectively operated as an act of homage to the 
genre. The Beginning’s ‘Time (Dirty Bit)’ could have actually passed for a 
Rave track from the early 90s - the crudeness of its cut and paste 
montage recalls the ruff ‘n’ ready textures that samplers would construct 
at that time, and its borrowing from Dirty Dancing’s ‘(I’ve Had) The Time 
of my Life’ was just the kind of subversion/sublimation of cheesy source 
material that Rave producers delighted in. Yet, the Black Eyed Peas’ 
Rave-appropri-ations didn’t function so much as revivals of Rave as 
denials that the genre had ever happened in the first place. If Rave 
hasn’t yet happened, then there is no need to mourn it. We can act as if 
we’re experiencing all this for the first time, that the future is still ahead 
of us. The sadness ceases to be something we feel, and instead consists in 
our temporal predicament itself, and we are like Jack in the Gold Room 
of the Overlook Hotel, dancing to ghost songs, convincing ourselves that 
the music of yesteryear is really the music of today. 

‘Always Yearning For The Time That Just 
Eluded Us’ - Introduction to Laura Oldfield 
Ford’s Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) 

June 2011 

‘I regard my work as diaristic; the city can be read as a palimpsest, of 
layers of erasure and overwriting,’ Laura Oldfield Ford has said. ‘The 
need to document the transient and ephemeral nature of the city is 
becoming increasingly urgent as the process of enclosure and 
privatisation continues apace.’ The city in question is of course London, 
and Ford’s Savage Messiah offers a samizdat counter-history of the capital 
during the period of neoliberal domination. If Savage Messiah is 
‘diaristic’, it is also much more than a memoir. The stories of Ford’s own 
life necessarily bleed into the stories of others, and it is impossible to see 
the joins. ‘This decaying fabric, this unknowable terrain has become my 
biography, the euphoria then the anguish, layers of memories colliding, 
splintering and reconfiguring.’ The perspective Ford adopts, the voices 
she speaks in - and which speak through her - are those of the officially 
defeated: the punks, squatters, ravers, football hooligans and militants 
left behind by a history which has ruthlessly photoshopped them out of 
its finance-friendly SimCity. Savage Messiah uncovers another city, a city 
in the process of being buried, and takes us on a tour of its landmarks: 
The Isle of Dogs...The Elephant...Westway...Lea Bridge...North Acton... 
Canary Wharf...Dalston...Kings Cross...Hackney Wick... 

In one of many echoes of punk culture, Ford calls Savage Messiah a 
‘zine’. She began producing it in 2005, eight years into a New Labour 
government that had consolidated rather than overturned Thatcherism. 
The context is bleak. London is a conquered city; it belongs to the 
enemy. ‘The translucent edifices of Starbucks and Costa Coffee line these 
shimmering promenades, ‘young professionals’ sit outside gently 
conversing in sympathetic tones.’ The dominant mood is one of 

restoration and reaction, but it calls itself modernisation, and it calls its 
divisive and exclusionary work - making London safe for the super-rich 
- regeneration. The struggle over space is also a struggle over time and 
who controls it. Resist neoliberal modernisation and (so we are told) you 
consign yourself to the past. Savage Messiah’s London is overshadowed 
by the looming megalith of ‘London 2012’, which over the course of the 
last decade has subsumed more and more of the city into its banal 
science fiction telos, as the Olympic Delivery Authority transformed 
whole areas of East London into a temporary photo opportunity for 
global capitalism. Where once there were ‘fridge mountains and 
abandoned factories’ out of Tarkovsky and Ballard, a semi-wilderness in 
the heart of the city, now a much blander desert grows: spaces for 
wandering are eliminated, making way for shopping malls and soon-to- 
be-abandoned Olympic stadia. ‘When I was writing the zines,’ Ford 
remembers, ‘I was drifting through a London haunted by traces and 
remnants of rave, anarcho-punk scenes and hybrid subcultures at a time 
when all these incongruous urban regeneration schemes were 
happening. The idea that I was moving through a spectral city was really 
strong, it was as if everything prosaic and dull about the New Labour 
version of the city was being resisted by these ghosts of brutalist 
architecture, of ‘90s convoy culture, rave scenes, ‘80s political 
movements and a virulent black economy of scavengers, peddlers and 
shoplifters. I think the book could be seen in the context of the aftermath 
of an era, where residues and traces of euphoric moments haunt a 
melancholy landscape.’ 

All of these traces are to be eliminated from the Restoration London 
that will be celebrated at London 2012. With their lovingly reproduced 
junk-strata, overgrowing vegetation and derelict spaces, Savage Messiah’s 
images offer a direct riposte to the slick digital images which the 
Olympic Delivery Authority has pasted up in the now heavily policed, 
restricted and surveilled Lee valley. Blair’s Cool Britannia provides the 
template for an anodyne vision of London designed by the ‘creative 
indus-tries’. Everything comes back as an advertising campaign. It isn’t 
just that the alternatives are written over, or out, it is that they return as 
their own simulacra. A familiar story. Take the Westway, West London’s 
formerly deplored dual carriageway, once a cursed space to be 
mythologised by Ballard, punks and Chris Petit, now just another edgy 

film set: 

This liminal territory, cast in a negative light in the 70s was 
recuperated by MTV and boring media types in the 90s. The Westway 
became the backdrop for Gorillaz imbecility, bland drum & bass 
record sleeves and photo shoots in corporate skate parks. 

Cool Britannia. Old joke. 

‘Space’ becomes the over arching commodity. Notting Hill. New Age 
cranks peddling expensive junk. Homeopathy and boutiques, angel 
cards and crystal healing. 

Media and high finance on the one hand, faux-mysticism and 
superstition on the other: all the strategies of the hopeless and those who 
exploit them in Restoration London...Space is indeed the commodity 
here. A trend that started 30 years ago, and intensified as council 
housing was sold off and not replaced, culminated in the insane super¬ 
inflation of property prices in the first years of the 21st century. If you 
want a simple explanation for the growth in cultural conservatism, for 
London’s seizure by the forces of Restoration, you need look no further 
than this. As Jon Savage points out in England’s Dreaming, the London of 
punk was still a bombed-out city, full of chasms, caverns, spaces that 
could be temporarily occupied and squatted. Once those spaces are 
enclosed, practically all of the city’s energy is put into paying the 
mortgage or the rent. There’s no time to experiment, to journey without 
already knowing where you will end up. Your aims and objectives have 
to be stated up front. ‘Free time’ becomes convalescence. You turn to 
what reassures you, what will most refresh you for the working day: the 
old familiar tunes (or what sound like them). London becomes a city of 
pinched-face drones plugged into iPods. 

Savage Messiah rediscovers the city as a site for drift and daydreams, a 
labyrinth of side streets and spaces resistant to the process of 
gentrification and ‘development’ set to culminate in the miserable hyper¬ 
spectacle of 2012. The struggle here is not only over the (historical) 
direction of time but over different uses of time. Capital demands that 
we always look busy, even if there’s no work to do. If neoliberalism’s 

magical voluntarism is to be believed, there are always opportunities to 
be chased or created; any time not spent hustling and hassling is time 
wasted. The whole city is forced into a gigantic simulation of activity, a 
fantacism of productivism in which nothing much is actually produced, 
an economy made out of hot air and bland delirium. Savage Messiah is 
about another kind of delirium: the releasing of the pressure to be 
yourself, the slow unravelling of biopolitical identity, a depersonalised 
journey out to the erotic city that exists alongside the business city. The 
eroticism here is not primarily to do with sexuality, although it 
sometimes includes it: it is an art of collective enjoyment, in which a 
world beyond work can - however briefly - be glimpsed and grasped. 
Fugitive time, lost afternoons, conversations that dilate and drift like 
smoke, walks that have no particular direction and go on for hours, free 
parties in old industrial spaces, still reverberating days later. The 
movement between anonymity and encounter can be very quick in the 
city. Suddenly, you are off the street and into someone’s life-space. 
Sometimes, it’s easier to talk to people you don’t know. There are 
fleeting intimacies before we melt back into the crowd, but the city has 
its own systems of recall: a block of flats or a street you haven’t focused 
on for a long time will remind you of people you met only once, years 
ago. Will you ever see them again? 

I got invited up for a cup of tea in one of those Tecton flats on the 
Harrow road, one of the old men from the day centre I work in. I took 
him up Kilburn High Road shopping and watered the fuchsias on his 
balcony. We talked about the Blitz and hospitals mostly. He used to be 
a scientist and wrote shopping lists on brown envelopes dated and 
filed in a stack of biscuit tins. 

I miss him. 

I miss them all. 

Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first 
touch - and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the 
same when it’s JPEGed on screen - Savage Messiah seems like something 

familiar. The form itself, the mix of photographs, typeface-text and 
drawings, the use of scissors and glue rather than digital cut and paste; 
all of this make Savage Messiah seem out of time, which is not to say out 
of date. There were deliberate echoes of the para-art found on punk and 
postpunk record sleeves and fanzines from the 1970s and 1980s. Most 
insistently, I’m reminded of Gee Vaucher, who produced the 
paradoxically photorealistically delirious record covers and posters for 
anarcho-punk collective Crass. ‘I think with the look of the zine I was 
trying to restore radical politics to an aesthetic that had been rendered 
anodyne by advertising campaigns, Shoreditch club nights etc.,’ Ford 
says. ‘That anarcho-punk look was everywhere but totally emptied of its 
radical critique. It seemed important to go back to that moment of the 
late ‘70s and early ‘80s to a point where there was social upheaval, 
where there were riots and strikes, exciting cultural scenes and ruptures 
in the fabric of everyday life.’ The ‘return’ to the postpunk moment is the 
route to an alternative present. Yet this is a return only to a certain 
ensemble of styles and methods - nothing quite like Savage Messiah 
actually existed back then. 

Savage Messiah is a gigantic, unfinished collage, which - like the city - 
is constantly reconfiguring itself. Macro-and micro-narratives proliferate 
tuberously; spidery slogans recur; figures migrate through various 
versions of London, sometimes trapped inside the drearily glossy spaces 
imagined by advertising and regeneration propaganda, sometimes free to 
drift. She deploys collage in much the same way William Burroughs used 
it: as a weapon in time-war. The cut-up can dislocate established 
narratives, break habits, allow new associations to coalesce. In Savage 
Messiah, the seamless, already-established capitalist reality of London 
dissolves into a riot of potentials. 

Savage Messiah is written for those who could not be regenerated, even 
if they wanted to be. They are the unregenerated, a lost generation, 
‘always yearning for the time that just eluded us’: those who were born 
too late for punk but whose expectations were raised by its incendiary 
afterglow; those who watched the Miners’ Strike with partisan 
adolescent eyes but who were too young to really participate in the 
militancy; those who experienced the future-rush euphoria of rave as 
their birthright, never dreaming that it could burn out like fried 
synapses; those, in short, who simply did not find the ‘reality’ imposed 

by the conquering forces of neoliberalism liveable. It’s adapt or die, and 
there are many different forms of death available to those who can’t pick 
up the business buzz or muster the requisite enthusiasm for the creative 
industries. Six million ways to die, choose one: drugs, depression, 
destitution. So many forms of catatonic collapse. In earlier times, 
‘deviants, psychotics and the mentally collapsed’ inspired militant-poets, 
situationists, Rave-dreamers. Now they are incarcerated in hospitals, or 
languishing in the gutter. 

No Pedestrian Access To Shopping Centre 

Still, the mood of Savage Messiah is far from hopeless. It’s not about 
caving in, it’s about different strategies for surviving the deep midwinter 
of Restoration London. People living on next to nothing, no longer living 
the dream, but not giving up either: ‘Five years since the last party but 
he held his plot, scavenging for food like a Ballardian crash victim.’ You 
can go into suspended animation, knowing that the time is not yet right, 
but waiting with cold reptile patience until it is. Or you can flee 
Dystopian London without ever leaving the city, avoiding the central 
business district, finding friendly passages through the occupied 
territory, picking your way through the city via cafes, comrade’s flats, 
public parks. Savage Messiah is an inventory of such routes, such 
passages through ‘territories of commerce and control’. 

The zines are saturated in music culture. First of all, there are the 
names of groups: Infa Riot and Blitz. Fragments of Abba, Heaven 17 on 
the radio. Japan, Rudimentary Peni, Einstiirzende Neubauten, Throbbing 
Gristle, Spiral Tribe. Whether the groups are sublime or sub-charity shop 
undesirable, these litanies have an evocative power that is quietly 
lacerating. Gig posters from 30 years ago - Mob, Poison Girls, Conflict - 
call up older versions of you, half-forgotten haircuts, long-lost longings, 
stirring again. But the role of music culture goes much deeper in Savage 
Messiah. The way the zine is put together owes as much to the rogue 
dance and drug cultures that mutated from Rave as to punk fanzines; its 
montage methodology has as much in common with the DJ mix as with 
any precursor in visual culture. Savage Messiah is also about the 
relationship between music and place: the zine is also a testament to the 

way in which the sensitive membranes of the city are reshaped by music. 

This sombre place is haunted by the sounds of lost acid house parties 
and the distant reverberations of 1986. Test Department. 303. 808. 
Traces of industrial noise. 

The roundhouse was easy to get into, and the depot itself, disused 
for years is lit up with tags and dubs. 

You can hear these deserted places, feel the tendrils creeping across 
the abandoned caverns, the derelict bunkers and broken terraces. Mid 
summer, blistering heat under the concrete, Armagideon Time(s), a 
hidden garden, to be found, and lost again. 

Superficially, the obvious tag for Savage Messiah would be 
psychogeography, but the label makes Ford chafe. ‘I think a lot of what 
is called psychogeography now is just middle-class men acting like 
colonial explorers, showing us their discoveries and guarding their plot. I 
have spent the last twenty years walking around London and living here 
in a precarious fashion, I’ve had about fifty addresses. I think my 
understanding and negotiation of the city is very different to theirs.’ 
Rather than subsuming Savage Messiah under the increasingly played-out 
discourses of psychogeography, I believe it is better understood as an 
example of a cultural coalescence that started to become visible (and 
audible) at the moment when Ford began to produce the zine: 
hauntology. ‘The London I conjure imbued with a sense of 
mourning,’ Ford says. ‘These are the liminal zones where the free party 
rave scene once illuminated the bleak swathes of marshland and 
industrial estates.’ So many dreams of collectivity have died in neoliberal 
London. A new kind of human being was supposed to live here, but that 
all had to be cleared away so that the restoration could begin. 

Haunting is about a staining of place with particularly intense 
moments of time, and, like David Peace, with whom her work shares a 
number of affinities, Ford is alive to the poetry of dates. 1979, 1981, 
2013: these years recur throughout Savage Messiah, moments of 
transition and threshold, moments when a whole alternative time-track 
opens. 2013 has a post-apocalyptic quality (in addition to being the year 
of the London Olympics, 2012 is also, according to some, the year that 

the Mayans predicted for the end of the world). But 2013 could also be 
Year Zero: the reversal of 1979, the time when all the cheated hopes and 
missed chances are finally realised. Savage Messiah invites us to see the 
contours of another world in the gaps and cracks of an occupied London: 

Perhaps it is here that the space can be opened up to forge a collective 
resistance to this neo liberal expansion, to the endless proliferation of 
banalities and the homogenising effects of globalisation. Here in the 
burnt out shopping arcades, the boarded up precincts, the lost citadels 
of consumerism one might find the truth, new territories might be 
opened, there might be a rupturing of this collective amnesia. 

Nomadalgia: The Junior Boys’ So This is Goodbye 

k-punk post, March 4, 2006 

Space comes as standard with the Junior Boys. The synthpop that 
inspired them remained attached, for the most part, to the three-minute 
format; ‘extended’ remixes were a concession to the imperatives of 
dance. Only one of So This is Goodbye’s 10 tracks is under four minutes. 
Space is integral, not only to their sound, but to their songs. Space is a 
compositional component, a presupposition of the songs, not something 
retrospectively inserted at a producer’s whim. The pauses, the imagist- 
allusiveness of the lyrics, the breathy phrasing would not work, or make 
much sense, outside a plateau-architecture imported from dance; 
crushed into three minutes Junior Boys’ songs would lose more than 

House references are everywhere: the title track is gorgeously, 
oneirically poised on a honeyed Mr Fingers’ plateau, and it is not only 
the arpeggiated synth which drives many of the tracks that is 
reminiscent of Jamie Principle. Yet the LP does not sound either like 
House or like most previous attempts to synthesize pop with House. So 
This is Goodbye is like House if it had started in the wilds of Canada 
rather the clubs of Chicago. Too many House-pop hybrids fill up House’s 
space with business, hectic activity. On Vocalcity and, to some extent The 
Present Lover, Luomo did the opposite: dilating the Song into an 
unfolding driftwork. But the Luomo LPs were more pop House than pop 
per se. So This is Goodbye is, however, very definitely a pop record; if 
anything, it’s even more seductively catchy than Last Exit. 

The obvious difference between So This is Goodbye and its predecessor 
is the absence of the tricksy stop-start stutter beats on the new record. If 
Junior Boys’ inventiveness is no longer concentrated on beats, that is a 
reflection as much of a decline of the surrounding pop context as it a 
sign of the JB’s newfound taste for rhythmic classicism. Last Exit’s 
reworkings of Timbaland/Dem 2 tic-beats meant that it had a 

relationship with a rhythmic psychedelia that was, then, still mutating 
pop into new shapes. In the intervening period, of course, both hip hop 
and British garage have taken a turn for the brutalist, and pop has 
consequently been deprived of any modernising force. Timbaland’s beat 
surrealism became water-treading repetition years ago, displaced by the 
ultra-realist thuggish plod of corporate hip hop and the ugly carnality of 
crunk; and 2 Step’s ‘feminine pressure’ has long since been crushed by 
the testos-terone-saturated bluntness of Grime and Dubstep. That skunk- 
fugged heaviness remains the antipodes of the Junior Boys’ cyberian, 
etherealised, plaintive physicality; listening to the Junior Boys after 
Grime or Dubstep is like walking out of a locker room thick with dope 
smoke out onto a Caspar David Friedrich mountain. A lung-cleansing 
experience. (Significant also that those other ultra-heterosexual post- 
Garage musics should have bred out the influence of House, while the 
Junior Boys return to it so emphatically.) 

But the removal of rhythmic tricksiness perhaps also indicates 
something of the scale of the Junior Boys’ pop ambitions, which are best 
seen as the pioneering of a New MOR rather than another attempt at 
New Pop. If there is no cutting edge, then it makes more sense to 
abandon the former margins and refurbish the middle of the road. The 
Junior Boys’ songs have always had more in common with a certain type 
of modernist MOR - Hall and Oates, Prefab Sprout, Blue Nile, Lindsay 
Buckingham - than with any rock. Modernist MOR is the opposite of the 
discredited strategy of entryism: it doesn’t ‘conform to deform’, it locates 
the alien right in the heart of the familiar. The problem with current Pop 
is not the predominance of MOR, but the fact that MOR has been 
corrupted by the wheedling whine of Indie authenticity. In any just 
world, the Junior Boys, not the drippy moroseness of James Blunt nor 
the earthy earnestness of KT Tunstall, would be the globally dominant 
MOR brand in 2006. 

Ultimately, though, So This is Goodbye sounds more middle of the 
tundra than middle of the road. It’s as if the Junior Boys’ journey into 
North America Endless has continued beyond the late-night freeways of 
Last Exit. It’s like the first LP’s city lights and Edward Hopper coffee bars 
have receded, and we’re taken out, beyond even the small towns, into 
the depopulated wildernesses of Canada’s Northern Territories. Or 
rather, it’s as if those wildernesses have crept into the very marrow of 

the record. In The Idea of North, Glenn Gould suggests that the North’s 
icy desolation has a special pull on the Canadian imagination. You hear 
this on So This is Goodbye not in any positive content so much as in the 
songs’ gaps and absences; the gaps and absences that make the song 
what they are. 

Those crevices and grottoes seem to multiply as the album progresses. 
The second half of the album (what I hear as the ‘second side’; one of the 
most gratifying things about So This is Goodbye is that it is structured like 
a classic pop album, not an extras-clogged CD) diffuses forward motion 
into trails of electro-cumulae. The title track sets stately synths against 
the anticlimactic urgency of Acid House’s Forever Now: the effect like 
running up a down escalator, frozen in an aching moment of transition. 
‘Like a child’ and ‘Caught in a Wave’ immerse the agitated drive of the 
LP’s signature arpeggiated synth in a vapour trail of opiated 

The reading of Sinatra’s ‘When No-one Cares’ is the knot which holds 
together all of So This is Goodbye, a clue to its modernist MOR intentions 
(lines from the song - ‘count souvenirs’, ‘like a child’ - provide the titles 
for other tracks, almost as if the song is a puzzle the whole album is 
trying to solve). So This is Goodbye’s songs bear much the same relation 
to high-energy as the late Sinatra’s bore to big band jazz: what was once 
a communal, dance-oriented music has been hollowed out into a 
cavernous, contemplative space for the most solitary of musings. On the 
Junior Boys’ ‘When No-one Cares’ beats are abandoned altogether, the 
track’s ‘endless night’ lit only by the dying-star flares and stalactite-by¬ 
flashlight pulse of reverbed electronics. 

The Junior Boys have transformed the song from the lonely-crowd 
melancholy of the original - Frank at the bar staring into his whisky 
sour, happy couples partying obliviously behind him (or in his 
imagination) - into a lament whispered in the wilderness, icy-breathed 
into the black mirror indifference of a Great Lake at midnight. It is as 
cosmically desolated as the Young Gods’ version of ‘September Song’, as 
arctic-white as Miles Davis’ Aura. ‘When No-one Cares’ is one of my 
favourite Sinatra songs, and I must have first heard it 20 years ago, but 
with the Junior Boys’ version - which makes the catatonic stasis of the 
original’s grief seem positively busy - it is as if I am hearing the words 
for the first time. 

Sinatra’s No-One Cares (which could have been subtitled: From 
Penthouse to Satis House) was like pop’s take on literary modernism, an 
affect (rather than a concept) album, a series of takes on a particular 
theme - disconnection from a hyper-connected world - with Frank the 
ageing sophisticate adrift in the McLuhan wasteland of the late 50s, Elvis 
already here, the Beatles on the way (who is the ‘no-one’ who doesn’t 
care if not the teen audience who have found new objects of adoration?), 
the telephone and the television offering only new ways to be lonely. So 
This is Goodbye is like a globalised update of No-One Cares, its images of 
‘hotel lobbies’, ‘shopping malls we’ll never see again’ and ‘homes for 
sale’ sketching a world in a state of permanent impermance (should we 
say precarity?). The songs are overwhelmingly preoccupied with leave- 
taking and change, fixated on doing things for the first or the last time. 
‘So This is Goodbye’ is not the title track for nothing. 

Sinatra’s melancholy was the melancholy of mass (old) media 
technology - the ‘extimacy’ of the records facilitated by the phonograph 
and the microphone, and expressing a peculiarly cosmopolitan and 
urban sadness. ‘I’ve flown around the world in plane/ designed the latest 
IBM brain/ but lately I’m so downhearted’, Sinatra song on No-One 
Cares’ ‘I Can’t Get Started’. Jetsetting is now not the privilege of the elite 
so much as a veritiginous mundanity for a permanently dispossessed 
global workforce. Every town has become the ‘tourist town’ alluded to in 
So This is Goodbye’s final track, ‘FM’, because now at home everyone is a 
tourist, both in the sense of permanently on the move but also in the 
sense of having the world at their fingertips, via the net. If Sinatra’s best 
records, like Hopper’s paintings, were about the way in which the urban 
experience produces new forms of isolation (and also: that such mass 
mediated private moments are the only mode of affective connection in 
a fragmented world), then So this is Goodbye is a response to the 
cyberspatial commonplace that, with the net, even the most remote spot 
can be connected up (and also: that such connection often amounts to a 
communion of lonely souls). Hence the impression that, if Sinatra’s 
‘When No-one Cars’ was an unanswered call from the heartless heart of 
the Big Apple, then the Junior Boys’ version has been phoned-in down a 
digital line from the edge of Lake Ontario. (Is it accidental that the term 
‘cyberspace’ was invented by a Canadian?) 

So this is Goodbye is a very travel sick record. It expresses what we 

might call nomadalgia. Nomadalgia, the sickness of travel, would be a 
complement to, not the opposite of, the sickness for home, nostalgia. 
(And what of the relation between nomadalgia and hauntology?) It’s 
entirely fitting that the final track, ‘FM’, should invoke both ‘a return 
home’ and radio (not the only reference to that ghost-medium on the 
album), since internet radio - with local stations available from any 
hotel in the world - is perhaps more than anything else the objective 
correlative of our current condition. A condition in which, as Zizek so 
aptly puts it, ‘global harmony and solipsism strangely coincide. That is to 
say, does not our immersion in cyberspace go hand in hand with our 
reduction to a Leibnizian monad which, although “without windows” 
that would directly open up to external reality, mirrors in itself the 
entire universe? Are we not more and more monads, interacting alone 
with the PC screen, encountering only the virtual simulacra, and yet 
immersed more than ever in the global network, synchronously 
communicating with the entire globe?’ (‘No Sex Please, We Are Post¬ 

Grey Area: Chris Petit’s Content 

BFI/ Sight & Sound Website, March 2010 

At one point in Chris Petit’s haunting new film Content, we drive through 
Felixstowe container port. It was an uncanny moment for me, since 
Felixstowe is only a couple of miles from where I now live - what Petit 
filmed could have been shot from our car window. What made it all the 
more uncanny was the fact that Petit never mentions that he is in 
Felixstowe; the hangars and looming cranes are so generic that I began 
to wonder if this might not be a doppelganger container port somewhere 
else in the world. All of this somehow underlined the way Petit’s text 
describes these ‘blind buildings’ while his camera tracks along them: 
‘non-places’, ‘prosaic sheds’, ‘the first buildings of a new age’ which 
render ‘architecture redundant’. 

Content could be classified as an essay film, but it’s less essayistic than 
aphoristic. This isn’t to say that it’s disconnected or incoherent: Petit 
himself has called Content a ‘21st-century road movie, ambient’, and its 
reflections on ageing and parenthood, terrorism and new media are 
woven into a consistency that’s non-linear, but certainly not 

Content is about ‘correspondence’, in different senses of the word. It 
was in part generated by electronic correspondence between Petit and 
his two major collaborators: Ian Penman (whose text is voiced by the 
German actor Hanns Zischler) and the German musician Antye Greie. 
Penman’s text is a series of reflections on the subject of email, that 
‘anonymous yet intimate’ ethereal communication. Some of Penman’s 
disquisitions on email are accompanied by images of postcards - the 
poignant tactility of this obsolete form of correspondence all the more 
affecting because the senders and addressees are now forgotten. Greie, 
meanwhile, produces skeins of electronica that provide Content with a 
kind of sonic unconscious in which terms and concepts referred to in the 
images and the voice track are refracted, extrapolated and 


One of the first phrases cited in Greie’s soundwork - which resembles 
sketches for unrealised songs - is a quotation from Roy Batty’s famous 
speech in Blade Runner: ‘If only you could see what I have seen with 
your eyes.’ This is a phrase Penman has made much of in his own 
writings on recording, technology and haunting - and it brings us to the 
other meaning of ‘correspon-dence’ Content plays with: correspondences 
in the sense of connections and associations. Some of these are 
underscored by Petit in his dryly-poetic text; others he leaves the 
viewers to make for themselves. 

One of the most gratifying aspects of Content, in fact, is that by 
contrast with so many contemporary television documentaries, which 
neurotically hector the audience by incessantly reiterating their core 
thesis, Petit trusts in the intelligence and speculative power of the 
viewer. Where so much television now involves a mutual redundancy of 
image and voice - the image is slaved into illustrating the text; the voice 
merely glosses the image - Content is in large part about the spaces 
between image and text, what is unsaid in (and about) the images. 

The use of a German actor and musician and the many references to 
Europe in Content reflect Petit’s childhood which, as he describes in the 
film, was partly spent as a forces child in Germany. But it also reflects 
Petit’s long-standing desire for some kind of reconciliation between 
British culture and European modernism. Petit has described Content as 
an ‘informal coda’ to his 1979 film Radio On (recently reissued on BFI 
DVD). With its strong debt to European art cinema, Radio On projected a 
rapprochement between British and European film that never happened 
- a rapprochement anticipated in the 1970s art pop (Kraftwerk, Bowie) 
used so prominently in that film. Petit imagined a British cinema that, 
like that music, could assert its Europeanness not by rejecting America, 
but by confidently absorbing American influences. Yet this future never 

‘Radio On, ’ Petit said in a recent interview, ‘ended with a car ‘stalled 
on the edge of the future’, which we didn’t know then would be 
Thatcherism.’ Ahead lay a bizarre yet banal mix of the unprecedented 
and the archaic. Instead of accelerating down Kraftwerk’s autobahn, we 
found ourselves, as Petit puts it in Content, ‘reversing into a tomorrow 
based on a non-existent past’, as the popular modernism Radio On was 

part of found itself eclipsed by a toxic-addictive confection of consumer- 
driven populism, heritage kitsch, xenophobia and US corporate culture. 
In this light, Content stands as a quiet but emphatic reproach to the 
British cinema of the last 30 years, which in its dominant variants - drab 
social realism, faux gangster, picture-book costume drama or mid- 
Atlantic middle-class fantasia - has retreated from modernity. It isn’t 
only the poor and the nonwhite who are edited out of Notting Hill, for 
example - it’s also the Westway, west London’s Ballardian flyover, which 
now stands as a relic of ‘the modern city that London never became’. 

Yet Content isn’t just a requiem for the lost possibilities of the last 30 
years. In its use of stunning but underused locations - the ready-made 
post-Fordist science-fiction landscapes of Felixstowe container port, the 
eerie Cold War terrain of nearby Orford Ness - Content demonstrates not 
only what British cinema overlooks, but what it could still be. 

Postmodern Antiques: Patience (After Sebald) 

Sight & Soundl, April 2011 

The first time I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker - when it was broadcast 
by Channel 4 in the early 1980s - I was immediately reminded of the 
Suffolk landscapes where I had holidayed as a child. The overgrown pill 
boxes, the squat Martello towers, the rusting groynes which resembled 
gravestones: this all added up to a readymade science fiction scene. At 
one point in Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2011) - an essay film 
inspired by W G Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn - theatre director 
Katie Williams makes the same connection, drawing a comparison 
between the demilitarised expanses of the Suffolk coast and Tarkovsky’s 

When I read Rings of Saturn, I was hoping that it would be an 
exploration of these eerily numinous spaces. Yet what I found was 
something rather different: a book that, it seemed to me at least, 
morosely trudged through the Suffolk spaces without really looking at 
them; that offered a Mittel-brow miserabilism, a stock disdain, in which 
the human settlements are routinely dismissed as shabby and the 
inhuman spaces are oppressive. The landscape in The Rings of Saturn 
functions as a thin conceit, the places operating as triggers for a literary 
ramble which reads less like a travelogue than a librarian’s listless 
daydream. Instead of engaging with previous literary encounters with 
the Suffolk - Henry James went on a walking tour of the county; his 
namesake MR James set two of his most atmospheric ghost stories there 
- Sebald tends to reach for the likes of Borges. My scepticism was fed by 
the solemn cult that settled around Sebald suspiciously quickly, and 
which seemed all-too-ready to admire those well-wrought sentences. 
Sebald offered a rather easy difficulty, an anachronistic, antiqued model 
of ‘good literature’ which acted as if many of the developments in 20th 
century experimental fiction and popular culture had never happened. It 
is not hard to see why a German writer would want to blank out the 

middle part of the 20th century; and many of the formal anachronisms 
of Sebald’s writing - its strange sense that this is the 21st century seen 
through the restrained yet ornate prose of an early 20th century essayist 
- perhaps arise from this desire, just as the novels themselves are about 
the various, ultimately failed, ruses - conscious and unconscious - that 
damaged psyches deploy to erase traumas and construct new identities. 
The writer Robert Macfarlane has called Sebald a ‘postmodern 
antiquarian’, and the indeterminate status of The Rings of Saturn - is it 
autobiography, a novel or a travelogue? - points to a certain playfulness, 
but this never emerges at the level of the book’s content. It was 
necessary for Sebald to remain po-faced in order for the ‘antiquing’ to be 
successful. Some of Gee’s images of Suffolk take their cue from the black 
and white photographs which illustrate The Rings Of Saturn. But the 
photographs were a contrivance: Sebald would photocopy them many 
times until they achieved the required graininess. 

Gee’s film was premiered as part of a weekend of events superbly 
curated by Gareth Evans of Artevents under the rubric After Sebald: Place 
and Re-Enchantment at Snape Makings, near Aldeburgh, in Suffolk. In the 
end, however, Sebald’s novels fits into any discussion of place and 
enchantment only very awkwardly: his work is more about displacement 
and disenchantment than their opposites. In Patience (After Sebald), the 
artist Tacita Dean observes that only children have a real sense of home. 
Adults are always aware of the precariousness and transitoriness of their 
dwelling place: none more so than Sebald, a German writer who spent 
most of his life in Norfolk. 

Patience (After Sebald) follows Gee’s documentaries about Radiohead 
and Joy Division. The shift from rock to literature, Gee told Macfarlane, 
was one that came naturally to someone whose sensibilities were formed 
by the UK music culture of the 1970s. If Sebald had been writing in the 
1970s, Gee claimed, he would surely have been mentioned in the NME 
alongside other luminaries of avant-garde literature. Gee started reading 
Sebald in 2004, after a recommendation from his friend, the novelist Jeff 
Noon. The film’s somewhat gnomic title was a relic of an earlier version 
of what the film would be. It now suggests the slowing of time that the 
Suffolk landscape imposes, a release from urban urgencies, but it is 
actually a reference to a passage in Sebald’s novel Austerlitz: ‘Austerlitz 
told me that he sometimes sat here for hours, laying out these 

photographs or others from his collection the wrong way up, as if 
playing a game of patience, and that then one by one, he turned them 
over, always with a new sense of surprise at what he saw, pushing the 
pictures back and forth and over each other, arranging them in an order 
depending on their family resemblances, or withdrawing them from the 
game until either there was nothing left but the grey tabletop, or he felt 
exhausted from the constant effort of thinking and remembering and had 
to rest on the ottoman.’ 

Gee had originally intended to make a film about the non-places in 
Sebald’s work: the hotel rooms or railway station waiting rooms in 
which characters ruminate, converse or break down (Austerlitz himself 
comes to a shattering revelation about his own identity in the waiting 
room at Liverpool Street station). In the end, however, Gee was drawn to 
the book which - osten-sibly at least - is most focused on a single 

Gee filmed practically everything himself, using a converted 16 mm 
Bolex camera. He wanted something that would produce frames that 
were ‘tighter than normal’, he said, ‘as if a single character is looking’. 
Gee sees Patience (After Sebald) as an essay film, in the tradition of Chris 
Petit’s work and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. But when I put it to 
him that Patience lacks the single voice that defines Petit or Keiller’s 
essay films, Gee responded self-deprecatingly. He had tried to insert 
himself into his own films, but he had always been dissatisfied with the 
results: his voice didn’t sound right; his acting didn’t convince; his 
writing wasn’t strong enough. In Patience, as in the Joy Division 
documentary, the story is therefore told by others: Macfarlane, Dean, 
Iain Sinclair, Petit, the literary critic Marina Warner and the artist 
Jeremy Millar. Millar provided one of the most uncanny images in 
Patience. When he lit a firework in tribute to Sebald, the smoke 
unexpectedly formed a shape which resembled Sebald’s face, something 
which Gee underlines in the film by animating a transition between 
Millar’s photograph and an image of the novelist. 

More than one of the speakers at the Towards Re-Enchantment 
symposium acknowledged that they misremem-bered The Rings of Saturn. 
There’s something fitting about this, of course, given that the duplicity of 
memory might have been Sebald’s major theme; but my suspicion is that 
misremembering of a different kind contributes to the Rings of Saturn 

cult; that the book induces its readers to hallucinate a text that is not 
there, but which meets their desires - for a kind of modernist travelogue, 
a novel that would do justice to the Suffolk landscape - better than 
Sebald’s actually novel does. Patience (After Sebald) is itself a 
misremembering of The Rings of Saturn which could not help but reverse 
many of the novel’s priorities and emphases. In The Rings of Saturn, 
Suffolk frequently (and frustratingly) recedes from attention, as Sebald 
follows his own lines of association. By contrast, the main substance of 
the film consists of images of the Suffolk landscape - the heathland over 
which you can walk for miles without seeing a soul, the crumbling cliffs 
of the lost city of Dunwich, the enigma of Orford Ness, its inscrutable 
pagodas silently presiding over Cold War military experiments which 
remain secret. Sebald’s reflections, voiced in Patience by Jonathan Pryce, 
anchor these images far less securely than they do in the novel. At 
Snape, some of those who had re-created Sebald’s walk - including Gee 
himself - confessed that they had failed to attain the author’s lugubrious 
mood: the landscape turned out to be too energising, its sublime 
desolation proving to be fallow ground for gloomy psychological 
interiority. In a conversation with Robert Macfarlane after the screening 
of the film, Gee said that it was not really necessary that Sebald had 
taken the walk. He meant that it was not important whether or not 
Sebald actually did the walk exactly as The Rings of Saturn’s narrator 
described it, in one go: that the novel could have been based on a 
number of different walks which took place over a longer period of time. 
But I couldn’t help but hear Gee’s remark in a different way: that it was 
not necessary for Sebald to have taken the walk at all: that, far from 
being a close engagement with the Suffolk terrain, The Rings of Saturn 
could have been written had Sebald never set foot in Suffolk. 

This was the view of Richard Mabey, cast in the role of doubting 
Thomas at the Towards Re-Enchantment symposium. Mabey - who has 
written and broadcast about nature for 40 years, and whose latest book 
Weeds has the glorious subtitle How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed 
Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature - argued that 
Sebald was guilty of the pathetic fallacy. When he read The Rings Of 
Saturn, Mabey said, he felt as if a very close friend had been belittled; 
although he had walked the Suffolk coastland countless times, he 
couldn’t recognise it from Sebald’s descriptions. But perhaps the issue 

with Sebald is that he wasn’t guilty enough of the pathetic fallacy, that 
instead of staining the landscape with his passions, as Thomas Hardy did 
with Wessex, or the Brontes did with Yorkshire, or, more recently, as the 
musician Richard Skelton has done with the Lancashire moorland - 
Sebald used Suffolk as a kind of Rorschach blot, a trigger for associative 
processes that take flight from the landscape rather than take root in it. 
In any case, Mabey wanted a confrontation with nature in all its 
inhuman exteriority. He sounded like a Deleuzean philosopher when he 
expostulated about the ‘nested heterogeneity’ and ‘autonomous poetry’ 
of micro-ecosytems to be found in a cow’s hoof print; of how it was 
necessary to ‘think like a mountain’, and quoted approvingly Virginia 
Woolf’s evocation of a ‘philosophising and dreaming land’. I was struck 
by the parallels between Mabey’s account of nature and Patrick Keiller’s 
invocation of lichen as ‘a non-human intelligence’ in Robinson in Ruins. 
With its examination of the ‘undiscovered country of nearby’, Robert 
Macfarlane’s film for the BBC, The Wild Places of Essex, shown as part of 
the Towards Re-Enchantment symposium, was also close to Mabey’s 
vision of a nature thriving in the spaces abandoned by, or inhospitable 
to, humans. (Macfarlane’s film now seems like a counterpart to Julien 
Temple’s wonderful Oil City Confidential, which rooted Dr Feelgood’s 
febrile rhythm and blues in the lunar landscape of Essex’s Canvey 
Island.) Patience (After Sebald) could appeal to a Sebald sceptic like me 
because - in spite of Sebald - it reaches the wilds of Suffolk. At the same 
time, Gee’s quietly powerful film caused me to doubt my own 
scepticism, sending me back to Sebald’s novels, in search of what others 
had seen, but which had so far eluded me. 

The Lost Unconscious: Christopher Nolan’s 


Film Quarterly, Vol 64, No. 3, 2011 

In Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough memory-loss thriller Memento from 
2000, the traumatised and heavily tattooed protagonist Lenny has a 
suggestive conversation with a detective: 

TEDDY: Look at your police file. It was complete when I gave it to 

you. Who took the twelve pages out? 

LEONARD: You, probably. 

TEDDY: No, you took them out. 

LEONARD: Why would I do that? 

TEDDY: To set yourself a puzzle you won’t ever solve. 

Like Lenny, Christopher Nolan has specialised in setting puzzles that 
can’t be solved. Duplicity - in the sense of both deception and doubling 
- runs right through his work. It’s not only the case that Nolan’s work is 
about duplicity; it is itself duplicitous, drawing audiences into labyrinths 
of indeterminacy. 

Nolan’s films have a coolly obsessive quality, in which a number of 
repeating elements - a traumatised hero and his antagonist; a dead 
woman; a plot involving manipulation and dissimulation - are 
reshuffled. These film noir tropes are then further scrambled in the 
manner of a certain kind of neo-noir. Nolan acknowledges Angel Heart 
(1987) and The Usual Suspects (1995) as touchstones (he mentions both 
in an interview which is included on the Memento DVD, singling out 
Parker’s film as a particular inspiration), but one can also see parallels 
with the meta-detective fictions of Robbe-Grillet and Paul Auster. 
There’s a shift from the epistemological problems posed by unreliable 
narrators to a more general ontological indeterminacy, in which the 

nature of the whole fictional world is put into doubt. 

Memento remains emblematic in this respect. At first glance, the film’s 
enigma resolves relatively simply. Lenny, who suffers from anterograde 
amnesiac condition which means that he can’t make new memories, is 
‘setting puzzles for himself that can’t be solved’ so that he can always be 
pursuing his wife’s murderer, long after Lenny has killed him. But after 
repeated viewings, the critic Andy Klein - in a piece for 
pointedly entitled ‘Everything You Wanted To Know About Memento- 
conceded that he wasn’t ‘able to come up with the ‘truth’ about what 
transpired prior to the film’s action. Every explanation seems to involve 
some breach of the apparent ‘rules’ of Leonard’s disability - not merely 
the rules as he explains them, but the rules as we witness them operating 
throughout most of the film.) The rules are crucial to Nolan’s method. If 
Memento is a kind of impossible object, then its impossibility is 
generated not via an anything-goes ontological anarchy but by the 
setting up of rules which it violates in particular ways - just as the effect 
of Escher’s paintings depend upon unsettling rather than ignoring the 
rules of perspective. 

Nolan nevertheless maintains that, however intractable his films might 
appear, they are always based on a definitive truth which he knows but 
will not reveal. As he said of Inception in the interview with Wired, ‘I’ve 
always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be 
based on a true interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or 
it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel 
cheated. Ambiguity has to come from the inability of the character to 
know - and the alignment of the audience with that character’. When 
the interviewer Robert Capps puts it to Nolan that there might be several 
explanations of the film’s ending, that the ‘right answer’ is impossible to 
find, the director flatly contradicts him: ‘Oh no, I’ve got an answer.’ But 
Nolan’s remarks may only be another act of misdirection; and, if a 
century of cultural theory has taught us anything, it is that an author’s 
supposed intentions can only ever constitute a supplementary (para)text, 
never a final word. What are Nolan’s films about, after all, but the 
instability of any master position? They are full of moments in which the 
manipulator - the one who looks, writes or narrates - becomes the 
manipulated - the object of the gaze, the character in a story written or 
told by someone else. 

In Inception, Cobb is an ‘extractor’, an expert at a special kind of 
industrial espionage, which involves entering into people’s dreams and 
stealing their secrets. He and his team have been hired by hyper-wealthy 
businessman Saito to infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer, the heir to 
a massive energy conglomerate. But this time Cobb’s team is not 
required to extract information, but to do something which the film tells 
is much more difficult: they are tasked with implanting an idea into 
Fischer’s mind. Cobb’s effectiveness as a dream thief is compromised by 
the projection of his dead wife, Mai, the pathological stain he now 
brings with him into any dream caper. Mai died after she suffered an 
apparent psychotic break. She and Cobb set up a lover’s retreat in the 
‘unconstructed dreamspace’ that the dream thieves call Limbo. But after 
she became too attached to this virtual love nest, Cobb ‘incepted’ in her 
the idea that the world in which they were living was not real. As Cobb 
mordantly observes, there is nothing more resilient than an idea. Even 
when she is restored to what Cobb takes to be reality, Mai remains 
obsessed with the idea that she the world around her is not real, so she 
throws herself from a hotel window in order to return to what she 
believes is the real world. The film turns on how Cobb deals with this 
traumatic event - in order to incept Fischer, Cobb has first of all to 
descend into Limbo and defeat Mai. He achieves this by simultaneously 
accepting his part in Mai’s death and by repudiating the Mai projection 
as an inadequate copy of his dead wife. With the Mai projection 
vanquished and the dream-heist successfully completed, Cobb is finally 
able to return to the children from whom he has been separated. Yet this 
ending has more than a suggestion of wish fulfilment fantasy about it, 
and the suspicion that Cobb might be marooned somewhere in a multi¬ 
layered oneirc labyrinth, a psychotic who has mistaken dreams for 
reality, makes Inception deeply ambiguous. Nolan’s own remarks have 
carefully maintained the ambiguity.’ I choose to believe that Cobb gets 
back to his kids,’ Nolan told Robert Capps. 

Nolan’s films are preoccupied with, to paraphrase Memento’s Teddy, 
‘the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy’. Yet the situation is worse 
even than that. It’s one thing to lie to oneself; it’s another to not even 
know whether one is lying to oneself or not. This might be the case with 
Cobb in Inception, and it’s notable that, in the Wired interview, Nolan 
says that ‘The most important emotional thing about the top spinning at 

the end is that Cobb is not looking at it. He doesn’t care.’ Not caring 
whether we are lying to ourselves may be the price for happiness - or at 
least the price one pays for release from excruciating mental anguish. In 
this respect, Dormer in Insomnia (2002) could be the anti-Cobb. His 
inability to sleep - which naturally also means an inability to dream - 
correlates with the breakdown of his capacity to tell himself a 
comforting story about who he is. After the shooting of his partner, 
Dormer’s identity collapses into a terrifying epistemological void, a black 
box that cannot be opened. He simply doesn’t know whether or not he 
intended to kill his partner (just as Borden in The Prestige cannot 
remember which knot he tied on the night that Angier’s wife died in a 
bungled escapology act.) But in Nolan’s worlds, it is not only that we 
deceive ourselves; it is also that we are deceived about having a self. 
There is no separating identity from fiction. In Memento, Lenny literally 
writes (on) himself, but the very fact that he can write a script for future 
versions of himself is a horrifying demonstration of his lack of any 
coherent identity - a revelation that his Sisyphian quest both exemplifies 
and is in flight from. Inception leaves us with the possibility that Cobb’s 
quest and apparent rediscovery of his children could be a version of the 
same kind of loop: a Purgatorio to Memento’s Inferno. 

‘The urge to rewrite ourselves as real-seeming fictions is present in us 
all,’ writes Christopher Priest in his novel The Glamour. It’s not at all 
surprising that Nolan has adapted a novel by Priest, since there are 
striking parallels between the two men’s methods and interests. Priest’s 
novels are also ‘puzzles that can’t be solved’, in which writing, biography 
and psychosis slide into one another, posing troubling ontological 
questions about memory, identity and fiction. The idea of minds as 
datascapes which can be infiltrated inevitably puts one in mind of the 
‘consensual hallucination’ of Gibson’s cyberspace, but the dreamsharing 
concept can be traced back to Priest and his extraordinary 1977 novel, A 
Dream of Wessex. In Priest’s novel, a group of researcher-volunteers use a 
‘dream projector’ to enter into a shared dream of a (then) future 
England. Like the dreamsharing addicts we briefly glimpse in one of 
Inception’s most suggestive scenes, some of the characters in A Dream of 
Wessex inevitably prefer the simulated environment to the real world, 
and, unlike Cobb, they choose to stay there. The differences in the way 
that the concept of shared dreaming is handled in 1977 and 2010 tell us 

a great deal about the contrasts between social democracy and 
neoliberalism. While Inception’s dreamsharing technology is - like the 
internet - a military invention turned into a commercial application, 
Priest’s shared dream project is government-run. The Wessex dream 
world is lyrical and languid, still part of the hazy afterglow of 60s 
psychedelia. It’s all a far cry from Inception’s noise and fury, the mind as 
a militarised zone. 

Inception (not entirely satisfactorily) synthesizes the intellectual and 
metaphysical puzzles of Memento and The Prestige (2006) with the big 
budget ballistics of Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). 
The problem is the prolonged action sequences, which come off as 
perfunctory at best. At points, it as if Inception’s achievement is to have 
provided a baroquely sophisticated motivation for some very dumb 
action sequences. An unkind viewer might think that the entirety of 
Inception’s complex ontological structure had been constructed to justify 
cliches of action cinema - such as the ludicrous amount of things that 
characters can do in the time that it takes for a van to fall from a bridge 
into a river. Blogger Carl Neville complains that Inception amounts to 
‘three uninvolving action movies playing out simultaneously’ ‘What 
could have been a fascinatingly vertiginous trip into successively 
fantastic, impossible worlds, not to mention the limbo of the raw 
unconscious into which a couple of the central characters plunge,’ 
Neville argues, 

ends up looking wholly like a series of action movies, one within the 
other: “reality” looks and feels like a “globalisation” movie, jumping 
from Tokyo to Paris to Mombasa to Sydney with a team of basically 
decent technical geniuses who are forced to live outside the law, 
making sure there are lots of helicopter shots of cityscapes and exotic 
local colour. Level one dream is basically The Bourne Identity... rainy, 
grey, urban. Level two is the Matrix, zero gravity fistfights in a 
modernist hotel, level three, depressingly, turns out to be a 70s Bond 
film while the raw Id is basically just a collapsing cityscape. 

The ‘level three’ snow scenes at least resemble one of the most visually 
striking Bond films - 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - but it’s hard 

not to share Neville’s sense of anti-climax. Rather than picking up pace 
and ramping up the metaphysical complexity, the film rushes towards its 
disappointing denouement. The elaborate set-up involving the ‘dream 
architect’ Ariadne is summarily abandoned, as she is told to forget the 
labyrinth and ‘find the most direct route through.’ When Ariadne and the 
film accede to these demands, it as if the imperatives of the action 
thriller have crashed through the intricacies of Nolan’s puzzle narrative 
with all the subtlety of the freight train that erupts into the cityscape in 
an earlier scene. 

Neville is right that Inception is very far from being a ‘fascinat-ingly 
vertiginous trip into successively fantastic, impossible worlds’, but it is 
worth thinking about why Nolan showed such restraint. (His parsimony 
couldn’t contrast more starkly with the stylistic extravagances of 
something like Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (2009), which aims at 
the fantastic and the impossible, but ends up CGI-onanistic rather than 
lyrically oneiric.) One initially strange thing about Inception is how un¬ 
dreamlike the dreams in the film are. It’s tempting to see the Nolan of 
Inception as a reverse Hitchcock - where Hitchcock took De Chirico-like 
dream topographies and remotivated them as thriller spaces, Nolan takes 
standard action flick sequences and repackages them as dreams. Except 
in a scene where the walls seem to close in around Cobb when he is 
being pursued - which, interestingly, takes place in the film’s apparent 
‘reality’ - the spatial distortions at work in Inception do not resemble the 
ways in which dreams distend or collapse space. There are none of the 
bizarre adjacencies or distances that do not diminish that we see in 
Welles’s The Trial (1962), a film which, perhaps better than any other, 
captures the uncanny topographies of the anxiety dream. When, in one 
of Inception’s most remarked upon scenes, Ariadne causes the Paris 
cityspace to fold up around herself and Cobb, she is behaving more like 
the CGI engineer who is creating the scene than any dreamer. This is a 
display of technical prowess, devoid of any charge of the uncanny. The 
Limbo scenes, meanwhile, are like an inverted version of Fredric 
Jameson’s ‘surrealism without the unconscious’: this is an unconscious 
without surrealism. The world that Cobb and Mai ‘create’ out of their 
memories is like a Powerpoint presentation of a love affair rendered as 
some walk-through simulation: faintly haunting in its very lack of allure, 
quietly horrifying in its solipsistic emptiness. Where the unconscious 

was, there CGI shall be. 

In an influential blog post, Devin Faraci argues that the whole film is a 
metaphor for cinematic production itself: Cobb is the director, Arthur 
the producer, Ariadne the screenwriter, Saito ‘the big corporate suit who 
fancies himself a part of the game’, Fischer the audience. ‘Cobb, as a 
director, takes Fischer through an engaging, stimulating and exciting 
journey,’ Faraci argues, ‘one that leads him to an understanding about 
himself. Cobb is the big time movie director...who brings the action, 
who brings the spectacle, but who also brings the meaning and the 
humanity and the emotion.’ In fact, as a director Cobb is something of a 
mediocrity (who we must conclude is far less accomplished than Nolan) 
- as Neville argues, Fischer’s ‘journey’ takes him through a series of 
standard-issue action set pieces, which are ‘engaging, stimulating and 
exciting’ only in some weakly generic way. Significantly and 
symptomatically, Faraci’s hyperbole here sounds as if it might belong in 
a marketing pitch for Cobb and his team; just as when Cobb and the 
others eulogise the ‘creativity’ of the dream architecture process - you 
can create worlds that never existed! - they sound like they are reciting 
advertising copy or the script from a corporate video. The scenes in 
which the team prepare for Fischer’s inception might have been 
designed to bring out the depressing vacuousness of the concept of the 
‘creative industries’. They play like a marketing team’s own fantasies 
about what they themselves are doing: the view from inside an 
Apprentice contestant’s head, perhaps. In any case, Inception seems to be 
less a meta-meditation on the power of cinema than a reflection of the 
way in which cinematic techniques have become imbricated into a banal 
spectacle which - fusing business machismo, entertainment protocols 
and breathless hype - enjoys an unprecedented dominion over our 
working lives and our dreaming minds. 

It is no doubt this sense of pervasive mediation, of generalised 
simulation, that tempts Faraci into claiming that ‘Inception is a dream to 
the point where even the dream-sharing stuff is a dream. Dom Cobb isn’t 
an extractor. He can’t go into other people’s dreams. He isn’t on the run 
from the Cobol Corporation. At one point he tells himself this, through 
the voice of Mai, who is a projection of his own subconscious. She asks 
him how real he thinks his world is, where he’s being chased across the 
globe by faceless corporate goons.’ The moment when Mai confronts 

Cobb with all this is reminiscent of the scene in Verhoeven’s Total Recall 
(1990) when a psychiatrist attempts to persuade Arnold 
Schwarzenegger’s Quaid that he is having a psychotic breakdown. But 
while Total Recall presents us with a strong distinction between Quaid’s 
quotidian identity as a construction worker and his life as a secret agent 
at the centre of an interplanetary struggle - a distinction that the film 
very quickly unsettles - Inception gives us only Cobb the generic hero: 
handsome, dapper, yet troubled. If, as Faraci claims, Cobb isn’t an 
extractor and he isn’t on the run from faceless corporate goons, then 
who is he? The ‘real’ Cobb would then be an unrepresented X, outside 
the film’s reality labyrinth - the empty figure who identifies with (and 
as) Cobb the commercially-constructed fiction; ourselves, in other words, 
insofar as we are successfully interpellated by the film. 

This leads to another difference between Inception and its Philip K 
Dick-inspired 80s and 90s precursors such as Total Recall, Videodrome 
(1983) and Existenz (1999). There is very little of the ‘reality bleed’, the 
confusion of ontological hierarchy, that defined those films: throughout 
Inception, it is surprisingly easy for both the audience and the characters 
to remember where they are in the film’s ontological architecture. When 
Ariadne is being trained by Cobb’s partner, Arthur, she is taken round a 
virtual model of the impossible Penrose Steps. On the face of it, 
however, Inception is remarkable for its seeming failure to explore any 
paradoxical Escheresque topologies. The four different reality levels 
remain distinct, just as the causality between them remains well-formed. 
But this apparently stable hierarchy might be violated by the object 
upon which much of the discussion of the film’s ending has centred: the 
thimble, the ‘totem’ that Cobb ostensibly uses to determine whether he is 
in waking reality or not. If it spins without falling, then he is in a dream. 
If it falls, then he is not. Many have noted the inadequacy of this 
supposed proof. At best, it can only establish that Cobb is not in his 
‘own’ dream, for what is there to stop his dreaming mind simulating the 
properties of the real thimble? Besides, in the film’s chronology, the 
thimble - that ostensible token of the empirical actual - first of all 
appears as a virtual object, secreted by Mai inside a doll’s house in 
Limbo. And a totem, it should be remembered, is an object of faith (it’s 
worth noting in passing that there are many references to faith 
throughout the film). 

The association of the thimble with Mai - there are online debates as 
to whether the thimble was first of all Cobb’s or Mai’s - is suggestive. 
Both Mai and the thimble represent competing versions of the Real. For 
Cobb, the thimble stands in for the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition’s 
account of what reality is - something sensible, tangible. Mai, by 
contrast, represents a psychoanalytic Real - a trauma that disrupts any 
attempt to maintain a stable sense of reality; that which the subject 
cannot help bringing with him no matter where he goes. (Mai’s 
malevolent, indestructible persistence recalls the sad resilience of the 
projections which haunt the occupants of the space station in 
Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).) No matter what ‘reality level’ Cobb is on, 
Mai and the thimble are always there. But where the thimble supposedly 
‘belongs’ to the ‘highest’ reality level, Mai ‘belongs’ to the ‘lowest’ level, 
the lover’s limbo which Cobb repudiated. 

Mai conflates two roles that had been kept separate in Nolan’s films - 
the antagonist-double and the grief object. In Nolan’s debut, Following 
(1998), the antagonist-double of the unnamed protagonist is the thief 
who shares his name with Inception’s hero. The theme of the antagonist- 
double is nowhere more apparent than in Nolan’s remake of Insomnia 
and The Dark Knight, films which are in many ways about the proximity 
between the ostensible hero and his beyond-good-and-evil rival. Nolan’s 
adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel, The Prestige, meanwhile, is in 
effect a film in which there is a defining antagonism but no single 
protagonist: by the end of the film, the illusionists Angier and Borden 
are doubled in multiple ways, just as they are defined and destroyed by 
their struggle with one another. More often than not, grief is the source 
of these antagonistic doublings. Grief itself is a puzzle that cannot be 
solved, and there’s a certain (psychic) economy in collapsing the 
antagonist into the grief object, since the work of grief is not only about 
mourning the lost object, it is also about struggling against the object’s 
implacable refusal to let go. Yet there’s something hollow about Cobb’s 
grief; on its own terms, it doesn’t convince as anything other than a 
genre-required character trait. It instead to stand in for something else, 
another sadness - a loss that the film points to but can’t name. 

One aspect of this loss concerns the unconscious itself, and here we 
might take Nolan’s script quite literally. For those with a psychoanalytic 
bent, the script’s repeated references to the ‘subconscious’ - as opposed 

to the unconscious - no doubt grate, but this might have been a 
Freudian slip of a particularly revealing kind. The terrain that Inception 
lays out is no longer that of the classical unconscious, that impersonal 
factory which, Jean-Francois Lyotard says, psychoanalysis described 
‘with the help of images of foreign towns or countries such as Rome or 
Egypt, just like Piranesi’s Prisons or Escher’s Other Worlds’. (Lihidinal 
Economy, Athlone, 1993, 164) Inception’s arcades and hotel corridors are 
indeed those of a globalised capital, whose reach easily extends into the 
former depths of what was once the unconscious. There is nothing alien, 
no other place here, only a ‘subconscious’ recirculating deeply familiar 
images mined from an ersatz psychoanalysis. So in place of the eerie 
enigmas of the unconscious, we are instead offered an Oedipal-lite scene 
played out between Robert Fischer and a projection of his dead father. 
The off-the-shelf pre-masticated quality of this encounter is entirely 
lacking in any of the weird idiosyncrasies which give Freud’s case 
histories their power to haunt. Cod Freudianism has long been 
metabolised by an advertising-entertainment culture which is now 
ubiquitous, as psychoanalysis gives way to a psychotherapeutic self-help 
that is diffused through mass media. It’s possible to read Inception as a 
staging of this superseding of psychoanalysis, with Cobb’s apparent 
victory over the Mai projection, his talking himself around to accepting 
that she is just a fantasmatic substitute for his dead wife, almost a 
parody of psychotherapy’s blunt pragmatism. 

The question of whether Cobb is still dreaming or not at the film’s end 
is ultimately too simple. For there is also the problem of whose dream 
Cobb might be in, if not his ‘own’. The old Freudian paradigm made this 
a problem too, of course - but there the issue was the fact that the ego 
was not master in its own house because the subject was constitutively 
split by the unconscious. In Inception, the ego is still not a master in its 
own house, but that is because the forces of predatory business are 
everywhere. Dreams have ceased to be the spaces where private 
pyschopathologies are worked through and have become the scenes 
where competing corporate interests play out their banal struggles. 
Inception’s ‘militarised subconscious’ converts the infernal urgencies and 
languid poise of the old unconscious into panicked persecution and a 
consolatory familialism: pursued at work by videogame gunmen, you 
later unwind with the kids building sandcastles on a beach. This is 

another reason that the dreams in Inception appear so undream-like. For, 
after all, these are not ‘dreams’ in any conventional sense. The designed 
virtual spaces of Inception’s dreams, with their nested ‘levels’, evidently 
resemble a videogame more than they recall dreams. In the era of 
neuromarketing, we are presided over by what J G Ballard called 
‘fictions of every kind’, the embedded literature of branding 
consultancies, advertising agencies and games manufacturers. All of 
which makes one of Inception’s premisses - that it is difficult to implant 
an idea in someone’s mind - strangely quaint. Isn’t ‘inception’ what so 
much late capitalist cognitive labour is about? 

For inception to work, Arthur and Cobb tell Saito early in the film, the 
subject must believe that the implanted idea is their own. The self-help 
dictums of psychotherapy - which Cobb affirms at the end of Inception - 
offer invaluable assistance in this ideological operation. As Eva Illouz 
argues, discussing the very conversion of psychoanalysis into self-help 
that Inception dramatises, ‘if we secretly desire our misery, then the self 
can be made directly responsible for alleviating it...The contemporary 
Freudian legacy is, and ironically so, that we are in the full masters in 
our own house, even when, or perhaps especially when, it is on fire.’ 
(Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Polity, 2007, 47) 
Yet our misery, like our dreams, our cars and our refrigerators, is in fact 
the work of many anonymous hands. This impersonal misery may be 
what Inception is ultimately about. The ostensibly upbeat ending and all 
the distracting boy-toy action cannot dispel the non-specific but 
pervasive pathos that hangs over the film. It’s a sadness that arises from 
the impasses of a culture in which business has closed down any 
possibility of an outside - a situation that Inception exemplifies, rather 
than comments on. You yearn for foreign places, but everywhere you go 
looks like local colour for the film set of a commercial; you want to be 
lost in Escheresque mazes, but you end up in an interminable car chase. 

Handsworth Songs and the English Riots 

BFI/ Sight and Sound Website, September 2011 

‘I’m sure that a group of people who brought the British state to its knees 
can organise themselves.’ So argued John Akomfrah, the director of the 
Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs at a screening of the film 
at Tate Modern last month. The film was released in 1986, a year after 
riots in Handsworth, Birmingham and Tottenham. Not surprisingly, 
given that the Tate had convened the event as a consequence of the 
recent uprisings in England, the question of the continuities and 
discontinuities between the 80s and now hung over the whole evening, 
dominating the discussion that followed the screening. 

Watched - and listened to - now, Handsworth Songs seems eerily 
(un)timely. The continuities between the 80s and now impose 
themselves on the contemporary viewer with a breathtaking force: just 
as with the recent insurrections, the events in 1985 were triggered by 
police violence; and the 1985 denunciations of the riots as senseless acts 
of criminality could have been made by Tory politicians yesterday. This 
is why it is important to resist the casual story that things have 
‘progressed’ in any simple linear fashion since Handsworth Songs was 
made. Yes, the BAFC can now appear at Tate Modern in the wake of new 
riots in England, something unthinkable in 1985; but, as Rob White 
pointed out in the discussion at the Tate event, there is little chance now 
of Handsworth Songs or its like appearing on Channel 4 now, still less 
being commissioned. The assumption that brutal policing and racism 
were relics of a bygone era was part of the reactionary narrativisation of 
the recent riots: yes, there was politics and racism back then, but not now, 
not any more... The lesson to be remembered - especially now that we are 
being asked to defend abortion and oppose the death penalty again - is 
that struggles are never definitively won. As the academic George Shire 
pointed out in the Tate discussion, many struggles have not been lost so 
much as diverted into what he called ‘the privatisation of politics’, as 

former activists become hired as ‘consultants’. Shire’s remarks strikingly 
echoed recent comments made by Paul Gilroy. ‘When you look at the 
layer of political leaders from our communities,’ Gilroy observed, ‘the 
generation who came of age during that time 30 years ago, many of 
those people have accepted the logic of privatization. They’ve privatised 
that movement, and they’ve sold their services as consultants and 
managers and diversity trainers.’ (See http://dreamof- 
2011.html) This points to one major discontinuity between now and 25 
years ago. In 1985, political collectivities were in the process of being 
violently decomposed - this was also the year in which the Miners’ 
Strike ended in bitter defeat - as the neoliberal political programme 
began to impose the ‘privatisation of the mind’ which is now everywhere 
taken for granted. Akomfrah’s optimistic take on the current riots - that 
those who rioted will come to constitute themselves as a collective agent 
- suggests that we might be seeing the reversal of this psychic 

One of many striking things about Handsworth Songs is the serene 
confidence of its experimental essayism. Instead of easy didacticism, the 
film offers a complex palimpsest comprising archive material, 
anempathic sound design and footage shot by the Collective during and 
after the riots. The Collective’s practice coolly assumed, not only that 
‘black’, ‘avant garde’ and ‘politics’ could co-exist, but that they must 
entail one another. Such assumptions, such confidence, were all the 
more remarkable for the fact that they were so hard won: the 
Collective’s Lina Gopaul remembered that the idea of a black avant- 
garde was greeted with incomprehension when the BAFC began their 
work. Even the sight of young black people carrying cameras provoked 
bemusement: are they real? Gopaul recalled police officers asking as the 
Collective filmed events in Handsworth and Broadwater Farm 25 years 

At a time when reactionaries once again feel able to make racist 
generalisations about ‘black culture’ in mainstream media, the 
Collective’s undoing of received ideas of what ‘black’ supposedly means 
remains an urgent project. In The Ghost of Songs: The Film Art of the Black 
Audio Film Collective, the outstanding survey of the BAFC’s work that he 
co-edited with fellow Otolith Group member Anjalika Sagar, Kodwo 

Eshun argued that, for the Collective, ‘black’ ‘might be profitably a dimension of potentiality.’ At the Tate discussion, 
which he chaired, Eshun pointed to the use in Handsworth Songs of Mark 
Stewart and the Maffia’s dub-refracted cut-up version of ‘Jerusalem’: the 
track makes a bid for an account of Englishness from which ‘blackness’, 
far from being something that can be excluded, becomes instead the only 
possible fulfilment of the millenarian promise of Blake’s revolutionary 
poem. The use of Stewart’s music also brings home the extent to which 
Handsworth Songs belonged to a postpunk moment which was defined by 
its unsettling of concepts of ‘white’ and ‘black’ culture. Trevor Mathison’s 
astonishing sound design certainly draws upon dub, but its voice loops 
and seething electronics are equally reminiscent of the work of Test 
Department and Cabaret Voltaire. So much film and television now 
deploys sound as a crude bludgeon which closes down the polyvalency 
of images. Whooshing sound effects subordinate audiences to the audio 
equivalent of a spectacle, while the redundant use of pop music enforces 
a terroristic sentimentalism. By strong and refreshing contrast, 
Mathison’s sound - which is simultaneously seductive and estranging - 
liberates lyricism from personalised emotion, and frees up the potentials 
of the audio from the strictures of ‘music’. Subtract the images entirely, 
and Handsworth Songs can function as a gripping audio-essay. 

Mathison’s sound recording equipment captured one of the most 
extraordinary moments in the film, an exchange between the floor 
manager and the producer of the long-defunct documentary series TV 
Eye in the run-up to a special edition of the programme which was about 
to be filmed in front of a Tottenham audience. The exchange reveals that 
it is not possible to securely delimit ‘merely technical’ issues from 
political questions. The producer’s anxieties about lighting quickly shade 
into concerns about the proportion of non-whites in the audience. The 
matter-of-fact tone of the discussions make this sudden peek into the 
reality studio all the more disturbing - and illuminating. 

The screening and the discussion at the Tate were a reminder that 
‘mainstream media’ is not a monolith but a terrain. It wasn’t because of 
the largesse of broadcasters that the BBC and Channel 4 became host to 
popular experimentalism between the 60s and the 90s. No: this was only 
possible on the basis of a struggle by forces - which were political at the 
same time as they were cultural - that were content neither to remain in 

the margins nor to replicate the existing form of mainstream. Handsworth 
Songs is a glorious artefact of that struggle - and a call for us to resume 

‘Tremors of an imperceptible future’: 
Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins 

Sight & Sound, November 2010 

In Ellis Sharp’s short story ‘The Hay Wain’, a Poll Tax rioter in 1990 
takes refuge in the National Gallery and ‘notices what he has never 
noticed before on biscuit tins or calendars, or plastic trays on the walls 
of his aunt’s flat in Bradford, those tiny figures bending in the field 
beyond.’ Constable’s supposedly timeless painting of English landscape 
ceases to be a kind of pastoral screensaver and becomes what it always 
really was: a snapshot of agricultural labour. Far from being some refuge 
from political strife, the English landscape is the site of numerous 
struggles between the forces of power and privilege and those who 
sought to resist them. Sharp replaces the dominant pastoral image of the 
English countryside, not with a deflated quotidian realism, but with a 
different kind of lyricism, one coloured by revolt: fields and ditches 
become hiding places or battlegrounds; landscapes that on the surface 
seem tranquil still reverberate with the unavenged spectral rage of 
murdered working class martyrs. It is not the sunlit English afternoon 
that is ‘timeless’, but the ability of the agents of reaction to escape 
justice. When the Poll tax rioter is clubbed by police and his blood starts 
to stain Constable’s emblem of English nationhood, we’re uncomfortably 
reminded of more recent episodes. ‘He was resisting arrest, right? Right 
mates? (Right, Sarge.)... We used minimal force , right? ... Don’t piss 
yourself and we’ll see this thing through together ; right mates?... Every one’ll 
be on our side , remember that. The commissioner. The Federation. The 
papers. And, if it comes to it, the Coroner. Now fucking go and call for an 
ambulance. ’ 

Patrick Keiller’s latest film, Robinson in Ruins, the long-awaited sequel 
to his two 1990s films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), 
performs a similar politicisation of landscape. Or rather, it exposes the 
way in which the rural landscape is always-already intensely politicised. 

‘I had embarked on landscape film-making in 1981, early in the 
Thatcher era, after encountering a surrealist tradition in the UK and 
elsewhere, so that cinematography involved the pursuit of a 
transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality,’ Keiller wrote 
in 2008, as he was preparing Robinson in Ruins. ‘I had forgotten that 
landscape photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological 
imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the 
possibility of creating a better one.’ London was a melancholy, quietly 
angry study of the city after 13 years of Tory rule. Its unnamed narrator, 
voiced by Paul Scofield, told of the obsessive researches undertaken by 
Robinson, a rogue - and fictional - theorist, into the ‘problem of 
London’. London was the capital of the first capitalist country, but 
Keiller was interested in the way that the city was now at the heart of a 
new, ‘post-Fordist’ capitalism, in which manufacturing industry had been 
superseded by the spectral weightlessness of the so-called service 
economy. Robinson and his narrator friend bitterly surveyed this brave 
new world with the doleful eyes of men formed in a very different era: a 
world in which public service broadcasters could commission films of 
this nature. 

London was as remarkable for the unique way that it combined fiction 
with the film-essay form. The film was composed of a series of striking 
images captured by Keiller’s static camera, which unblinkingly caught 
the city in unguarded epiphanic moments. Robinson in Space retained the 
same methodology, but broadened the focus from London to the rest of 
England. Rural landscapes featured in Robinson in Space, but as 
something which Keiller’s camera looked over rather than at. In the first 
two films, Robinson’s interest was in the cities where capitalism was first 
built, and in the non-places where it now silently spreads: the 
distribution centres and container ports that are unvisited by practically 
anyone except Robinson and his narrator-companion, but which web 
Britain into the global market. Keiller saw that, contrary to certain 
dominant narratives, the British economy was not ‘declining’. Rather, 
this post-industrial economy was thriving, and that was the basis of its 
oppressive and profoundly inegalitarian power. 

London and Robinson in Space were made in the space between two 
political non-events, the general elections of 1992 and 1997. 1992 was 
the year when change was supposed to come - the end of Tory rule was 

widely expected, not least by the Conservative Party itself, yet John 
Major was re-elected. 1997 saw the long-anticipated change finally 
arrive, but it turned out to be no kind of change at all. Far from ending 
the neoliberal culture that Keiller anatomised, Tony Blair’s government 
would consolidate it. Robinson in Space, largely assembled in the dying 
days of the Major government, was made too early for it to properly 
register this. Yet its focus on the banal, Ballardian infrastructure of 
British post-Fordist capitalism made it a deeply prophetic film. The 
England of Robinson in Space was still the England presided over by 
Gordon Brown a decade later. 

The traumatic event which reverberates through Robinson in Ruins is 
the financial crisis of 2008. It’s still too early to properly assess the 
implications of this crisis, but Robinson in Ruins shares with Chris Petit’s 
Content - a film with which it has many preoccupations in common - the 
tentative sense that a historical sequence which began in 1979 ended in 
2008. The ‘ruins’ which Robinson walks through here are partly the new 
ruins of a neoliberal culture that has not yet accepted its own demise, 
and which, for the moment, continues with the same old gestures like a 
zombie that does not know that it is dead. Citing Fredric Jameson’s 
observation in The Seeds of Time that ‘it seems to be easier for us today 
to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature 
than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some 
weakness in our imaginations’, Robinson nevertheless dares to hope, if 
only for a moment, that the so-called credit crunch is something more 
than one of the crises by which capitalism periodically renews itself. 

Perhaps strangely, it is the ‘thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth 
and nature’ that seem to give Robinson some grounds for hope, and the 
most evident difference between Robinson in Ruins and the previous films 
is the emergence of a radical Green perspective. In part, Keiller’s turn 
towards Green themes reflects changes in mainstream political culture. 
At the time of the previous two Robinson films, Green politics could still 
appear to be a fringe concern. In the last decade or so, however, 
anxieties about global warming in particular have come into the very 
centre of culture. Now, every corporation, no matter how exploitative, is 
required to present itself as Green. The emergence of ecological concerns 
gives Keiller’s treatment of landscape a properly dialectical poise. In the 
opposition between capital and ecology, we confront what are in effect 

two totalities. Keiller shows that capitalism - in principle at least - 
saturates everything (especially in England, a claustrophobic country 
that long ago enclosed most of its common land, there is no landscape 
outside politics); there is nothing intrinsically resistant to capital’s drive 
to commoditisation, certainly not in the ‘natural world’. Keiller 
demonstrates this with a long excursus on how the prices of weight 
increased in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis. Yet from the equally 
inhuman perspective of a radical ecology, capital, for all that it may 
burn out the human environment and take large swathes of the 
nonhuman world with it, is still a merely local episode. 

Environmental catastrophe provides what a political unconscious 
totally colonised by neoliberalism cannot: an image of life after 
capitalism. Still, this life may not be a human life, and there is the 
feeling that, like the narrator’s father in Margaret Atwood’s coldly 
visionary novel Surfacing, Robinson may have headed off into some kind 
of dark Deleuzean communion with Nature. As with Surfacing , Robinson 
in Ruins begins with a disappearance: Robinson’s own. Paul Scofield 
having died in 2010, the narration is no longer handled by Robinson’s 
friend, but by Vanessa Redgrave, playing the head of a group seeking to 
reconstruct Robinson’s thinking from notes and films recovered from the 
caravan where he was last known to live. If the Redgrave narration 
doesn’t quite work, then that is partly because there is a feeling that 
Keiller has slightly tired of the Robinson fiction, or it has ceased to serve 
much of a function for him. For what seems like large parts of the film, 
the Robinson framing narrative disappears from view, to the extent that 
it can be something of a jolt when Robinson is mentioned again. Lacking 
Paul Scofield’s sardonic insouciance, Redgrave’s narrative is often oddly 
tentative, her emphasis not quite mustering Scofield’s assured mastery of 
Keiller’s tone. 

In tracking the historical development of capitalism in England, and 
the sites of struggle against it, Robinson in Ruins shows a sensitivity to 
the way that landscape silently registers (and engenders) politics that 
echoes the concerns of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. As in 
Straub-Huillet’s films, Robinson in Ruins returns to landscapes where 
antagonism and martyrdom once took place: Greenham Common, the 
woodland where Professor David Kelly committed suicide. 

Keiller’s decision to retain film rather than switch to a digital medium 

carries more charge now than it did when he used a cine camera for 
London and Robinson in Space. In many ways, even in 1997, we had yet 
to really enter the digital realm; now, with cyberspace available on 
every smartphone handset, we are never outside it. The return to film 
made him appreciate the materiality of the medium in a new way. 
‘Compared with videotape,’ Keiller has written, ‘film stock is expensive 
to purchase and process, and the camera’s magazine holds only 122m of 
stock, just over 4 minutes at 25fps. Film hence tends to involve a greater 
commitment to an image before starting to turn the camera, and there is 
pressure to stop as soon as possible, both to limit expenditure and to 
avoid running out of loaded film. Results are visible only after 
processing, which, in this case, was usually several days later, by which 
time some subjects were no longer available and others had changed, so 
as to rule out the possibility of a retake. I began to wonder why I had 
never noticed these difficulties before, or whether I had simply forgotten 
them. Another problem was that, with computer editing, it is no longer 
usual to make a print to edit. Instead, camera rolls are transferred to 
video after processing, so that the footage is never seen at its best until 
the end of the production process. This hybridity of photographic and 
digital media so emphasises the value of the material, mineral 
characteristics of film that one begins to reimagine cinematography as a 
variety of stone-carving.’ 

When we hear early on in the film that Robinson has made contact 
with a series of ‘non-human intelligences’, we initially suspect that he 
has finally succumbed to madness. Yet the ‘non-human intelligences’ 
turn out not to be the extra-terrestrials of a florid pulp science fiction- 
inspired psychosis, but the intra-terrestrial lifeforms that an ecological 
awareness reveals growing with a silent stubbornness that matches the 
brute tenacity of capitalism. In one of the many slow spirals that typify 
Keiller’s approach in Robinson in Ruins, the lichen that his camera lingers 
on in an early shot, apparently for merely picturesque effect, will 
eventually come to take centre stage in the film’s narrative. Lichen, 
Robinson comes to realise, is already the dominant life-form on large 
areas of the planet. Inspired by the work of American biologist Lynn 
Margulis, Robinson confesses to a growing feeling of ‘biophilia’, which 
Keiller seems to share. While his camera lingers tenderly on wildflowers, 
the film’s verbal narrative is suspended, projecting us for a few long 

moments into this world without humans. These moments, these 
unnarrativised surveys of a non-human landscape, are like Keiller’s 
version of the famous ‘Straubian shot’, the cut-aways to depopulated 
landscapes in Straub and Huillet’s films. Robinson is drawn to Margulis 
because she rejects the analogies between capitalism and the biological 
that are so often used to naturalise capitalist economic relations. Instead 
of the ruthless competition which social Darwinians find in nature, 
Margulis discovers organisms engaging in co-operative strategies. When 
Keiller turns his camera on these ‘non-human intelligences’, these mute 
heralds of a future without humanity, I’m reminded of the black orchids 
in Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge Of Darkness, those harbingers of an 
ecology that is readying to take revenge on a humanity that 
thoughtlessly disdained it. Kennedy Martin’s inspiration was the anti¬ 
humanist ecology of James Lovelock, and Lovelock’s apocalyptic 
message seems to haunt Robinson in Ruins too. Keiller finds extinction 
looming everywhere - species dying off at a far faster rate than scientists 
had thought possible only a few years ago. The emphasis on extinction 
means that the concerns of Robinson in Ruins rhyme with the 
preoccupations that have emerged in speculative realist philosophy, 
which has focused on the spaces prior to, beyond and after human life. 
In some respects, the work of philosophers such as Ray Brassier and Tim 
Morton re-stages the old confrontation between human finitude and the 
sublime which was the former subject of a certain kind of landscape art. 
But where the older sublime concentrated on local natural phenomenon 
such as the ocean or volcanic eruptions which could overwhelm and 
destroy the individual organism or whole cities, speculative realism 
contemplates the extinction, not only of the human world, but of life and 
indeed matter itself. The prospect of ecological catastrophe means that 
disjunction between the lived time of human experience and longer 
durations is now not just a question of metaphysical contemplation, but 
a matter of urgent political concern, as one of Robinson’s touchstones, 
Fredric Jameson, noted. ‘[A]s organisms of a particular life span,’ 
Jameson writes in his essay ‘Actually Existing Marxism’, 

we are poorly placed as biological individuals to witness the more 

fundamental dynamics of history, glimpsing this or that incomplete 

moment, which we hasten to translate into the alltoo-human terms of 
success or failure. But neither stoic wisdom nor the reminder of a 
longer-term view are really satisfactory responses to this peculiar 
existential and epistemological dilemma, comparable to the science- 
fictional one of beings inhabiting a cosmos they do not have organs to 
perceive or identify. Perhaps only the acknowledgement of this radical 
incommensurability between human existence and the dynamic of 
collective history and production is capable of generating new kinds of 
political attitudes; new kinds of political perception, as well as of 
political patience; and new methods for decoding the age as well, and 
reading the imperceptible tremors within it of an inconceivable future. 
(Valences of the Dialectic, Verso, 2010, pp369-70) 

Amongst its requiem for neoliberal England, Robinson in Ruins gives us 
some intimations of those imperceptible tremors and inconceivable 

Contemporary culture has eliminated both the concept of the public and 
the figure of the intellectual. Former public spaces - both physical and 
cultural - are now either derelict or colonized by advertising. A 
cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by expensively educated 
hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored 
readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their interpassive 
stupor. The informal censorship internalized and propagated by the 
cultural workers of late capitalism generates a banal conformity that the 
propaganda chiefs of Stalinism could only ever have dreamt of imposing. 
ZerO Books knows that another kind of discourse - intellectual without 
being academic, popular without being populist - is not only possible: it 
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called mass media and the neurotically bureaucratic halls of the 
academy. ZerO is committed to the idea of publishing as a making public 
of the intellectual. It is convinced that in the unthinking, blandly 
consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical 
reflection is more important than ever before.